Syria conflict: Chemical inspectors enter Douma

International investigators are allowed access to the town following alleged gas attack

British prime minister Theresa May faced questions in the House of Commons about the bombardment of Syria. Video: Parliamentlive.tv

 

International inspectors have entered the Syrian town where an alleged chemical attack was carried out earlier this month, following delays by Syrian and Russian authorities in granting access.

The fact-finding mission from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is investigating reports that government forces launched an April 7th chemical attack in the final stages of their campaign to retake the town, Douma, from rebels.

The alleged gas attack, which Syrian activists say killed more than 40 people, prompted punitive US, British and French air strikes. Syria and its ally Russia deny any chemical attack took place, and Russian officials have accused Britain of staging a “fake” chemical attack.

British prime minister Theresa May says Syria and Russia, whose forces now control the town, which is located east of Damascus, are trying to cover up evidence.

Journalists were allowed access to the suspected attack sites on Monday, but the OPCW said Syrian and Russian authorities blocked the inspectors.

The Associated Press spoke to survivors of and witnesses to the attack who described being hit by gas. Several said a strange smell started spreading and people screamed: “It’s chlorine! It’s chlorine!”

The US and France say they have evidence that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces used poison gas in the attack, but they have not provided any of that evidence, even after Saturday’s punitive missile strikes against Syria.

The sites targeted in Saturday’s strikes were largely empty and were all said to be facilities for chemical weapons storage or production.

Douma was the last rebel-held town near Damascus, and the target of a government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds of people and displaced tens of thousands.

Hours after the alleged chemical attack, the rebel faction that controlled the town, the Army Of Islam, relented and was evacuated along with thousands of residents.

The site visit came hours after reports of more international air strikes on Syrian military installations.

False alarm

However, the Syrian military later said a false alarm set off air defence systems early on Tuesday, and retracted earlier reports of a pre-dawn “outside aggression” on its airfields in the central Homs region and a suburb of Damascus.

The Pentagon denied any American military activity in the area. There was no comment from Israel, which frequently carries out air strikes in Syria but rarely acknowledges them.

Explosions were heard in the areas of the two bases, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian conflict through a network of sources inside the country. But it said no missiles landed inside the bases.

Earlier this month, four Iranian military personnel were killed in an airstrike on Syria’s T4 air base, also in Homs. Syria and its main allies Iran and Russia blamed Israel for that attack. Israel did not confirm or deny the allegations.

The lack of access to Douma has left unanswered questions about the attack earlier this month. OPCW director-general Ahmet Uzumcu said Syrian and Russian officials had cited “pending security issues” in keeping its inspectors from reaching Douma.

The US had earlier voiced fears that Moscow may already have “tampered with” evidence at the site, while Russia dismissed as “a blatant lie” accusations that it was hindering the investigation in Douma.

The US, France, Britain, and Russia confronted each other in tense emergency talks on Monday at the OPCW in The Hague, where the US 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”.

The Kremlin dismissed the claims. “I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site,” said foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Theresa May and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, have each faced a political backlash for conducting the air strikes.

Despite polls showing scant support for the move, Ms May said it had been her “responsibility as prime minister to make these decisions”, while Mr Macron also defended his move as part of his constitutional powers.

France urged OPCW nations to boost the organisation’s work so it can completely dismantle Syria’s “secret” toxic weapons programme.

And the US called for a clear condemnation by the OPCW of “the Syrian government for its reign of chemical terror”.

The trio that carried out Saturday’s strikes warned they would repeat the operation if Damascus used chemical weapons again.

Regime forces have declared Douma and the entire eastern Ghouta region around it fully retaken, ending a five-year siege. – Agencies