Inspectors' entry to probe alleged gas strike held up
The access to Douma by chemical weapons inspectors seeking to probe an alleged poison gas attack there was delayed Monday, British officials said.
Moscow, the main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on Sunday condemned the United States, Britain and France for refusing to wait for the findings of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons inspection team on the alleged attack on Douma before they launched the strikes.
OPCW inspectors arrived in Damascus on Saturday and had planned to head to Douma, on the outskirts of the capital, Monday. But the British delegation to the OPCW said Russia and Syria had not yet allowed inspectors access to Douma, citing security concerns.
Britain’s Ambassador Peter Wilson said at a news conference in The Hague that the United Nations had cleared the inspectors to go but they had been unable to reach Douma because Syria and Russia had been unable to guarantee their safety.
“Unfettered access (is) essential,” a British statement said. “Russia and Syria must cooperate.”
Russia’s deputy foreign minister said the delay was due to the Western strikes.
The Kremlin Monday dismissed as “groundless” claims that Russia and Syria have not allowed a fact-finding mission by the world’s chemical weapons watchdog to enter Douma to probe an alleged gas attack.
“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.”
The inspectors for the Hague-based OPCW met Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad in the presence of Russian officers and a senior Syrian security official in Damascus for about three hours on Sunday.
Washington, meanwhile, prepared to increase pressure on Russia with new economic sanctions, and European Union foreign ministers threatened similar measures.
In London and Paris, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron faced criticism from political opponents over their decisions to take part in the air strikes against Syria.
The US, France and Britain launched 105 missiles targeting what the Pentagon said were three chemical weapons facilities in Syria in retaliation for the alleged poison gas attack in Douma.
The Western countries blame Assad for the attack, which thrust Syria’s seven-year-old conflict into the forefront of global concern once again and heightened a diplomatic confrontation with the Kremlin. The Syrian government and its Russian ally deny involvement in any such incident.
Douma, in the eastern Goutha district, was one of the last bastions near Damascus of rebels fighting to topple Assad, and the alleged attack took place amid a ferocious government offensive.
In the aftermath, the remnants of a rebel army evacuated, handing Assad one of the biggest victories in a war that has killed about half a million people and laid waste to whole cities.
The US-led strikes didn’t alter the strategic balance or dent Assad’s supremacy and the Western allies have said the aim was to prevent the further use of chemical weapons, not to intervene in the civil war or topple Assad.