DAMASCUS/THE HAGUE, AP – The US has accused Russia of blocking international inspectors from reaching the site of a suspected poison gas attack in Syria and says Russians or Syrians may have tampered with evidence on the ground.
Moscow denies the charge and blamed delays on retaliatory US-led missile strikes on Syria at the weekend.
In the fraught aftermath of the suspected attack in Douma and the West’s response, Washington also prepared to increase pressure on Moscow, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main ally, with new economic sanctions. European Union foreign ministers threatened similar measures.
British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron faced criticism from political opponents over their decisions to take part in the air strikes.
Syria and Russia deny unleashing poison gas on April 7 during their offensive on Douma, which ended with the recapture of the town that had been the last rebel stronghold near the capital Damascus.
Relief organisations say dozens of men, women and children were killed. Footage of young victims foaming at the mouth and weeping in agony has thrust Syria’s civil war to the forefront of world concern again.
Inspectors from the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons travelled to Syria last week to inspect the site, but have yet to gain access to Douma, 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 an OPCW meeting 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. His comments at the closed-door meeting were obtained by Reuters.
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.
Two days after the missile strikes, President Donald Trump still wants to bring the small number of US troops in northern Syria home, the White House said.
But spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said he had not set a timeline for a pull-out. Trump was also willing to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, she added, while indicating that no such encounter was imminent.
Britain’s delegation to the OPCW accused Russia and the Assad government of stopping inspectors from reaching Douma. ‘Unfettered access is essential,’ it said in a statement. ‘Russia and Syria must co-operate.’
British ambassador Peter Wilson said in The Hague that the United Nations had cleared the inspectors to go but they had been unable to reach Douma because Syria and Russia had been unable to guarantee their safety.
Moscow blamed the delay on the air strikes, in which the US, France and Britain targeted what the Pentagon said were three chemical weapons facilities.
‘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,’ Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
A Russian defence ministry official later said the OPCW experts would travel to Douma on Wednesday.
Russia’s defence ministry said the United States and its allies had hit military targets and not just research facilities, Interfax news agency reported.
The RIA news agency quoted the ministry as saying the Syrian military destroyed 71 out of 103 cruise missiles detected in Syrian airspace.