Chemical weapons experts will arrive in Douma on Wednesday to investigate an alleged poison gas attack, Russia said, as the U.S. voiced fears Moscow may already have “tampered with” evidence at the site, The Guardian says. By the time inspectors arrive at the site on Wednesday, it will have been 11 days since the attack. They are expected to gather soil and other samples to help identify any chemicals used in the suspected attack.
Russia and the Syrian regime have been accused by western diplomats of denying chemical weapons inspectors access to sites in the town of Douma, where an attack killed dozens and prompted U.S.-led missile strikes over the weekend.
Russia and Syria had cited “pending security issues” before inspectors could deploy to the town outside Damascus, said Ahmet Üzümcü, the director general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), at a meeting of its executive council on Monday.
“Syrian authorities were offering 22 people to interview as witnesses instead,” he said, adding that he hoped “all necessary arrangements will be made … to allow the team to deploy to Douma as soon as possible”.
At the meeting on Monday, the OPCW director general, Ahmet Üzümcü, said his team of nine volunteers had reached Damascus but so far “the team has not yet deployed to Douma”. Syrian and Russian officials had warned of “pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place”, Üzümcü said.
The U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, Ken Ward, claimed the Russians had already visited the site and “may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission”.
“It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site,” Mr Ward said. “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.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied any interference with the evidence. “I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site,” he told the BBC. He said evidence of the chemical attack was “based on media reports and social media” and was a “staged thing”.
In a separate incident on Tuesday, Syrian state media briefly reported that the country’s air defences had responded to a missile attack over the western city of Homs. The U.S. and Israel both denied carrying out any strikes, and later reports suggested the country’s air defence system may have been triggered by mistake. It was not known who carried out the attack, with the Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb saying: “There are no U.S. or coalition operations in that area.”
The weekend missile strikes by the U.S., Britain and France were in response to a chlorine and sarin gas attack in Douma on 7 April in which 40 people were said to have been killed.
Igor Kirillov, the head of Russia’s radiological, biological and chemical protection unit, said the roads still had to be de-mined and cleared and would be tested by UN security services on Tuesday before inspectors could go in.
“On Wednesday is when we plan the arrival of the OPCW experts,” he added at a press conference in the Russian embassy in The Hague.
France urged OPCW nations to boost the organisation’s work so it can completely dismantle Syria’s “secret” toxic weapons programme. And the United States called for a clear condemnation by the OPCW of “the Syrian government for its reign of chemical terror”.
The missiles that U.S., French and British warships fired on suspected chemical facilities on Saturday constituted the biggest western attack against the regime in the seven-year war between Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and forces attempting to topple him. The targeted sites were largely empty and were all said to be facilities for chemical weapons storage or production.
U.S. forces said 105 missiles were launched, and claimed the strikes had set back Syria’s chemical weapons programme by years. Russia said 71 of the missiles were shot down by Syrian air defence systems. One of the three sites hit was the Barzeh complex, which the US says was a centre for development, production and testing of chemical and biological weapons, although Syria denies this.
The other two were suspected chemical weapons facilities at Him Shinshar near Homs.