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New chemical weapons team starts work to find Syria culprits: OPCW

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been given new powers to assign blame for attacks
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been given new powers to assign blame for attacks AFP
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The Hague (AFP)

A new chemical weapons investigation team has started work on identifying the culprits behind alleged attacks in Syria, the head of the world's toxic arms watchdog said.

Member states of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) agreed one year ago to give The Hague-based body new powers to assign blame for attacks.

Syria has already blocked access to the chief of the so-called Identification and Investigation Team, while Moscow and Damascus have accused the Hague-based OPCW of becoming "politicised".

The team "has initiated its work to identify the perpetrators of the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic", OPCW director-general Fernando Arias said in a statement to member states issued on Monday but seen by AFP on Friday.

The team would be "identifying and reporting on all information potentially relevant to the origin of those chemical weapons" where their use has previously been identified by OPCW teams, he said.

Western states pushed through the new blaming powers after a string of chemical incidents in Syria, as well as the 2018 nerve agent attack on a Russian former double in the British city of Salisbury.

Previously the OPCW only had the mandate to state whether or not chemical weapons had been used, without identifying the likely culprits.

Since that decision the OPCW -- which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its work in destroying the world's chemical weapons stocks -- has been finding staff and funding for the new attributions team.

- No visa -

The OPCW chief did not give any details of the team's initial activities or which incidents it would be investigating first. It is able to probe attacks as far back as 2013.

Arias has said the "very small but very strong" team would have nine or ten members.

However Arias said in his statement this week that Syria had sent a letter saying it "would not issue a visa to the Coordinator of the IIT to visit Damascus."

The OPCW chief said he had postponed a meeting scheduled for May in Damascus as a result.

The West has called for the new team to quickly start work on identifying the culprits behind a deadly attack in the Syrian town of Douma in April 2018.

The OPCW said in a report on March 2 that chlorine was likely used in the attack, which it said killed more than 40 people. The report however did not apportion blame as it was not in the watchdog's mandate at the time.

Syria and Russia say the incident -- which sparked western airstrikes against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad -- was faked.

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