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US envoy to OPCW says Russia may have 'tampered' with chemical attack site

This image released early Sunday, April 8, 2018 by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, shows a child receiving oxygen through respirators following an alleged poison gas attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria.
Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP
Moscow vows 'not to interfere' in OPCW's work; UK says Russia, Syria have not yet allowed team into Douma

Russia and Syria have stalled access to Douma by international experts seeking to probe an alleged poison gas attack there, citing security concerns, a British diplomat said Monday.

The claim came as the global chemical arms watchdog held emergency talks on the alleged atrocity, which prompted Western air strikes on Syria on Saturday.

The US envoy to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) told the closed-door talks that Russia may have "tampered" with the site of the attack.

"It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site," US ambassador Ken Ward said.

"We are concerned they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission to conduct an effective investigation," he added in his speech, which was shared with news agencies.

"It is long overdue that this council condemns the Syrian government for its reign of chemical terror and demands international accountability for those responsible for these heinous acts," Ward was quoted as saying.

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

The OPCW chief, Ahmet Uzumcu, told the meeting his inspectors had failed to gain access to the site.

"The team has not yet deployed to Douma," Uzumcu told emergency talks of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Russian and Syrian officials "have informed the... team that there were still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place," he added.

Britain's envoy Peter Wilson urged the meeting "to act to hold perpetrators to account", saying failure to do so "will only risk further barbaric use of chemical weapons, in Syria and beyond".

The Kremlin dismissed accusations of tampering and delay as "groundless", and earlier vowed not to interfere with the work of the OPCW fact-finding mission in Douma, which is currently in Syria to probe the alleged attack on Douma in which 40 people died.

"We consider such accusations against Russia to be groundless," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding that Moscow was in favor of "an impartial investigation".

"Russia confirms its commitment to ensure safe and security of the mission and will not interfere in its work," said am earlier statement from the Russian embassy in The Hague, where the global watchdog is headquartered.

ImageSat International

It also slammed the United States, saying the weekend strikes on three facilities in Syria were a bid "to undermine the credibility" of the mission.

The OPCW has 192 members, and Monday's governing executive council meeting of 41 states was called by its chairman, Bangladeshi ambassador Sheikh Mohammed Belal, "to discuss the alleged use of chemical weapons" in Syria.

As the on-the-ground investigation gets under way, the fallout from the US-led response continued to reverberate, with French President Emmanuel Macron claiming to have persuaded President Donald Trump to keep his troops in Syria.

The White House pushed back against Macron's claim on Sunday, saying that Trump still plans to withdraw US troops from Syria "as quickly as possible".

And in London, British Prime Minister Theresa May was to face an emergency parliamentary debate Monday over her country's part in the operation.

The US-led strikes were the biggest international attack on President Bashar al-Assad's regime since the start of Syria's seven-year war.

They have risked a confrontation with Moscow, the Syrian regime's top ally, with President Vladimir Putin warning that fresh attacks would spark "chaos", while Washington vowed economic sanctions against Russia rather than further military action.

Handout (SANA/AFP)

US, French and British missiles destroyed sites suspected of hosting chemical weapons development and storage facilities Saturday, in a move lauded by President Donald Trump as "perfectly executed" -- although the buildings were mostly empty and both Damascus and Syria's opposition rubbished its impact.

The Western trio swiftly reverted to diplomatic efforts, with leaders facing flak at home over the punitive attack.

But their unified stance appeared to be shaken Sunday when Washington knocked back French President Emmanuel Macron's claim that Paris had convinced Trump to stay engaged in Syria "for the long-term".

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said the US mission "has not changed" and Trump wanted troops home "as quickly as possible".

Saturday's strikes came just hours before a team of experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Damascus.

They have been tasked with investigating the site of the alleged April 7 chemical attack in the town of Douma, in the formerly rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, which Western powers said involved chlorine and sarin, and killed dozens.

The inspectors will face a difficult task, with all key players having preempted their findings, including Western powers, which justified the strikes by claiming they already had proof such weapons were used.

Kallysta CASTILLO (US Department of Defense/AFP)

Inspection still useful?

The team will also have to deal with the risk that evidence may have been removed from the site, which lies in an area that has been controlled by Russian military police and Syrian forces over the past week.

"That possibility always has to be taken into account, and investigators will look for evidence that shows whether the incident site has been tampered with," Ralf Trapp, a consultant and member of a previous OPCW mission to Syria, told AFP.

The OPCW declared that the Syrian government's chemical weapons stockpile had been removed in 2014, only to confirm later that sarin was used in a 2017 attack in the northern town of Khan Sheikhun.

"We will ensure they can work professionally, objectively, impartially and free of any pressure," Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Soussan told AFP.

Just hours after the Western strikes, the Syrian military declared it had fully retaken Eastern Ghouta, in a key victory for the resurgent regime, which had launched a blistering two-month assault on the opposition stronghold.

(Staff with AFP)

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