Russia and Syria are blocking a team of international chemical weapons investigators from accessing the site of a suspected poison gas attack, Western diplomats said Monday.
Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the team had arrived in Damascus but had not entered Douma, the suburb where a chemical bombardment allegedly killed at least 40 people on April 7.
The U.S., plus allies Britain and France, say the Syrian government used a combination of chlorine gas and a nerve agent to attack civilians in Douma. The three nations carried out retaliatory strikes against suspected chemical weapons facilities Friday night, hours before the OPCW team arrived in Damascus.
Russian and Syrian authorities had previously welcomed the OPCW team and gave assurances they wouldn’t interfere with its investigation. However, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Monday that OPCW investigators cannot proceed until they obtain permission from the United Nations Department for Safety and Security, reported The Associated Press.
At an OPCW meeting in Brussels Monday, the British delegation to OPCW headquarters in Brussels expressed concern that Russia and Syria were trying to stall the fact-finding mission.
#OPCW Director Gen briefs Exec Council on his Fact Finding Mission’s deployment to Syria to investigate #Douma chem weapon attack. OPCW arrived in Damascus on Saturday. Russia & Syria have not yet allowed access to Douma. Unfettered access essential. Russia & Syria must cooperate.
— UK Delegation OPCW (@UK_OPCW) April 16, 2018
At the same meeting, U.S. ambassador Ted Ward said the presence of Russian forces at the attack site calls into question the integrity of any evidence found there.
“We are concerned that they may have tampered with it with the intention of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission to conduct an effective investigation,” he said, according to the BBC.
“This raises serious questions about the ability of the [fact-finding mission] to do its job,” Ward added.
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Russia dismissed allegations that it was intentionally blocking the OPCW team from accessing the Douma site and instead blamed the delay on allied missile strikes. The U.S. is trying to “undermine the credibility” of the fact-finding mission before it can begin its work, Russia’s delegation to the OPCW said Monday.
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