World

Chemical weapons experts blocked from site of Syria attack

Some parts of Douma, formerly held by Syrian rebels, have been rendered into rubble by government airstrikes.
Hassan Ammar/Associated Press
Some parts of Douma, formerly held by Syrian rebels, have been rendered into rubble by government airstrikes.

LONDON — Western officials accused Syria and Russia on Monday of preventing weapons inspectors from reaching the site of a suspected chemical attack by the Syrian government that led to airstrikes by the United States and its allies over the weekend.

Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Syria on Saturday, but two days later, they still had not reached Douma, the Damascus suburb where about 70 people were killed in the attack April 7. Syrian and Russian forces have captured the area from rebels.

The inspectors are going to the scene to take samples and interview people, but “they are currently being prevented from doing so by the regime and the Russians,” Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain said in Parliament on Monday afternoon.

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Syrian and Russian officials have told the chemical organization team “that there were still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place,” Ahmet Uzumcu, the organization’s director general, told its executive council Monday.

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The meeting was held in private, but the organization released the prepared statements of Uzumcu and some other officials.

Later Monday, Major General Yuri Yevtushenko, of the military’s Reconciliation Center in Syria, said Russian military police were ready to help protect the experts on their planned visit to Douma, the Associated Press reported.

In a separate development Monday, Trump apparently has rejected, for now at least, a fresh round of sanctions set to be imposed against Russia, a course change that underscored the schism between the president and his national security team.

The president’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, had announced Sunday the administration would place sanctions on Russian companies found to be assisting Syria’s chemical weapons program. The sanctions were listed on a menu of further government options after a US-led airstrike on Syrian in retribution for the suspected chemical attack.

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But the White House contradicted her on Monday, saying that Trump had not approved additional measures. “A decision will be made in the near future,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, said in a statement.

Even as the war in Syria exacts a fearful toll on the ground, discussion of the suspected chemical attack has been wrapped in a fog of contradiction and confusion.

Nations made charges and countercharges, claiming to have damning but secret evidence about each other’s conduct, with Russia in particular spinning an array of theories of varying degrees of plausibility.

The British delegation to the chemical weapons organization wrote on Twitter: “Russia and Syria have not yet allowed access to Douma. Unfettered access essential. Russia and Syria must cooperate.” Other Western diplomats confirmed that Syria and Russia were impeding the team.

Senior Russian diplomats said it was the United Nations, not Syria or Russia, that had prevented inspectors from entering Douma.

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“The problem was the absence of the UN Secretariat security department’s approval for OPCW experts to visit Douma,” Sergei A. Ryabkov, deputy foreign minister of Russia, told reporters, according to the news agency Interfax.

A spokesman for the United Nations, Stéphane Dujarric, disputed the Russian explanation. “The UN has given them all the necessary clearances,” he said by telephone.

Dujarric declined to say whether Secretary General António Guterres would demand that Russia and Syria provide the experts with access to the Douma site.