‘Russia may have tampered with chemical attack site’

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(L-R) French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl at the start of the Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg on Monday. — EPA

THE HAGUE — Western countries accused Moscow on Monday of preventing inspectors from reaching the site of a suspected poison gas attack in Syria and said Russians or Syrians may have tampered with evidence on the ground.

The United States, Britain and France launched air strikes on Saturday against what they described as three Syrian chemical weapons targets in retaliation for a suspected gas attack that killed scores of people in the Damascus suburb of Douma on April 7.

Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) went to Syria last week to inspect the Douma site but have yet to gain access to the town, which is now under government control after the rebels withdrew.

“It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site,” US Ambassador Kenneth Ward said at a meeting of the OPCW in The Hague on Monday.

“It is our concern that 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 said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied that Moscow had interfered with any evidence: “I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site,” he told the BBC in an interview.

Earlier, Britain’s delegation to the OPCW accused Russia and the Syrian government of preventing the international watchdog’s inspectors from reaching Douma. The inspectors aim to collect samples, interview witnesses and document evidence to determine whether banned toxic munitions were used, although they are not permitted to assign blame for the attack.

“Unfettered access is essential,” the British delegation said in a statement. “Russia and Syria must cooperate.”

Moscow blamed the delay on the Western air strikes. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the British accusation that Russia was to blame for holding up the inspections was “groundless”.

“We called for an objective investigation. This was at the very beginning after this information [of the attack] appeared. Therefore allegations of this towards Russia are groundless,” Peskov said.

Witnesses and Western governments say helicopters dropped chemical bombs that killed many children and women hiding in cellars from bombardment. Washington has said it has conclusive evidence the attack used chlorine gas, and suspects sarin nerve agent was also used although this was not confirmed.

The British envoy to the OPCW said the body had recorded 390 allegations of the use of banned chemicals in Syria since 2014, and that a failure by the OPCW to act risked allowing “further barbaric use of chemical weapons”.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson made this clear on Monday as he arrived at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, telling reporters: “I’m afraid the Syrian war will go on in its horrible, miserable way. But it was the world saying that we’ve had enough of the use of chemical weapons.”

European Union foreign ministers threatened on Monday new sanctions on Syria

“The European Union will continue to consider further restrictive measures against Syria as long as the repression continues,” all 28 foreign ministers said in a statement after their talks in Luxembourg, referring to economic sanctions. — Agencies


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