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US suggests Douma evidence tampered with

by
April 17, 2018

An OPCW team says it has been unable to access the site of an alleged chemical attack in Douma.

Independent investigators have been prevented by Syrian and Russian officials from reaching the scene of an alleged chemical attack near the Syrian capital, an official say.

The lack of access to the town of Douma by inspectors from the watchdog group, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has left questions about the April 7 attack unanswered.

OPCW director-general Ahmet Uzumcu said Syrian and Russian officials had cited "pending security issues" in keeping its inspectors from reaching Douma.

"The team has not yet deployed to Douma," two days after arriving in Syria, Uzumcu told an executive council of the OPCW in The Hague on Monday.

Syrian authorities were offering 22 people to interview as witnesses instead, he said, adding that he hoped "all necessary arrangements will be made ... to allow the team to deploy to Douma as soon as possible."

The US and France say they have evidence that poison gas was used in Douma, east of Damascus, killing dozens of people, and that President Bashar al-Assad's military was behind it, but they have made none of that evidence public. Syria and its ally Russia deny any such attack took place.

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov blamed the Western air strikes carried out early on Saturday for holding up a mission by the OPCW team to Douma. He said the inspectors cannot access the site because it needs permission from UN security experts.

Ryabkov's remarks could indicate a possible attempt to bog down the team, even though both Russia and the Syrian government have welcomed the OPCW visit.

He told reporters in Moscow that what is hampering a speedy resolution of the visit to Douma was "the consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action", a reference to the punitive air strikes.

The OPCW team arrived in Syria shortly before the air strikes and met with Syrian officials. Government forces and Russian troops have been deployed in Douma, which is now controlled by the Syrian government.

"It is the lack of approval by the UN Department for Safety and Security for OPCW experts to visit the site in Douma that is the problem," Ryabkov told reporters.

Syrian opposition and activists have criticised the Russia deployment in the town, saying that evidence of chemical weapons' use might no longer be found.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied that Russia interfered with any evidence.

"I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site," Lavrov told the BBC in an interview Monday.

The Kremlin also denied that Russia was not allowing the OPCW mission in, without elaborating.

"As far as I understand what is hampering a speedy resolution of this problem is the consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action that Great Britain and other countries conducted on Saturday," said Ryabkov.

The OPCW was holding an emergency meeting in The Hague to discuss the suspected chemical attack in Douma.

At least 40 people are believed to have died in the attack on Douma, which until Saturday was the last rebel-held town near Damascus.

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