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Chemical weapons body probes leaked document on Syrian attack

The attack killed more than 40 people
The attack killed more than 40 people AFP/File
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The Hague (AFP)

The head of the global chemical weapons watchdog has ordered a probe into the leak of an internal paper which queried the body's findings into a 2018 attack in the Syrian town of Douma.

Syrian and Russian media had seized on the leaked document written by a member of the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which emerged on the internet in May.

OPCW director general Fernando Arias said in remarks to member states made public on Wednesday that "actions had to be taken" following the leak.

"When further evidence appeared that the document drafted by the staff member had been shared outside this framework, I considered I had sufficient information to authorise the initiation of an investigation to clarify the situation," Arias said in the meeting, which took place on May 28.

Arias added that "I stand by the impartial and professional conclusions" of the full OPCW report released in March that chlorine was likely used in the Douma attack, which killed more than 40 people.

The report also cited ballistics reports implying that two gas cylinders found at the scene were likely dropped from the air.

However the leaked "engineering report" by an OPCW member named Ian Henderson said there was a "higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed... rather than being delivered from aircraft."

Henderson's assessment was not included in the OPCW official report, but later appeared in May on the website of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media?, which regularly questions Western narratives on Syria.

Damascus and Moscow have previously argued that the cylinders were likely placed at the scene in a staged attack by rebels, rather than from Syrian regime planes.

Arias said the internal document was not included in the report because it "pointed at possible attribution" and was therefore outside the remit of the OPCW's so-called Fact Finding Mission in Syria.

A new OPCW team that has controversially been given the power to attribute blame for attacks is due to start work within weeks.

The OPCW chief also played down the role of Henderson -- whom he did not name -- saying he was a "liaison officer at our Command Post Office in Damascus" and was "temporarily assisting... with information collection at some sites in Douma."

Meanwhile Arias also said that Syria has refused access to the new investigation team following last year's decision by the body to establish it.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad had sent him a letter saying that "Syria refuses to recognise the decision and to deal with any of its subsequent implications and effects."

Syria had also refused a visa for the team's coordinator, Arias said, and as a result the OPCW had postponed a meeting scheduled for May in Damascus.

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