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Crime & Justice

Chemical arms probe stalled from entering Douma



A photo taken on April 16th shows the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, The Netherlands. [Koen van Weel/ANP/AFP]

Russia and Syria have not yet allowed a fact-finding mission from the world's chemical weapons watchdog to enter Douma to probe allegations of a gas poison attack, the British embassy in the Hague said Monday (April 16th).

The claim came as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held emergency talks on the alleged chemical attack, which prompted Western airstrikes on Syria on Saturday.

OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu told the closed-door meeting his inspectors had failed to gain access to the site, the British ambassador to the Netherlands said.

Uzumcu said "the Syrian regime and the Russians were citing security concerns", ambassador Peter Wilson told a press conference.

The Russians and Syrians "have not been able to guarantee the security of the delegation to go to Douma at this point", Wilson added, saying no timeline had been given for when they could visit.

US ambassador to the OPCW Ken Ward on Monday expressed concern that Russia may have visited the site and "tampered with" evidence.

"It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site," he said during emergency talks. "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."

The talks at the OPCW's headquarters come two days after a wave of punitive missile strikes in Syria launched by Western powers after the alleged April 7th toxic arms attack on Douma.

The team had been expected to begin its field work on Sunday, but met with officials at its Damascus hotel instead, and a strict media blackout was imposed on its schedule.

The Kremlin dismissed claims that Russia was impeding access.

Dismantling Syria's 'secret' programme

The missiles that US, French and British warships fired on suspected chemical facilities Saturday constituted the biggest Western attack against the regime in the seven-year war.

Russia on Saturday failed to win UN backing for a condemnation of the Western strikes.

At the OPCW, France urged nations to boost the organisation's work so it can dismantle Syria's "secret" toxic weapons programme.

Following recent alleged attacks, "we all know, Syria has maintained a secret chemical programme since 2013", French ambassador Philippe Lalliot said.

"The facts are there, and they defy the most obscene lies and the most absurd denials," he said.

He added that priority must be given to helping the OPCW "complete the dismantling of the Syrian programme".

The attack on Douma, in which most experts say chlorine as well as a nerve agent such as sarin were used, killed at least 40 people, according to local medics.

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