Russian officials say international chemical weapons experts are due to arrive in Syrian town of Douma on April 18 to investigate the site of a suspected gas attack there, amid U.S. fears that Moscow may already have “tampered with” evidence at the site.
On April 16, the head of the global chemical-weapons watchdog said that inspectors had not yet been granted access to the site.
“The team has not yet deployed to Douma,” Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said on April 16.
Uzumcu told an emergency meeting of the organization in The Hague that Russian and Syrian officials have informed the OPCW team that there were “still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place.”
Igor Kirillov, head of Russia’s radiological, biological and chemical protection unit, told the media the access roads to Douma still had to be demined and cleared, and would be checked by UN security services on April 17.
“Tomorrow [April 17] the security services of the United Nations…will test the routes,” Kirillov told a news conference in the Russian Embassy in The Hague.
“On Wednesday [April 18] is when we plan the arrival of the OPCW experts,” Kirillov said.
The suspected attack in Douma, outside Damascus, in which the World Health Organization has said 43 people who died suffered “symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals,” occurred on April 7.
The United States, Britain, and France launched air strikes against Syrian government facilities on April 14 in response.
Syrian state media early April 17 said air defenses had shot down several missiles over the central province of Homs. It said the missiles reportedly targeted regime air bases.
It was immediately unknown who carried out the attack, with Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb saying, “There are no U.S. or coalition operations in that area.”
OPCW inspectors arrived in Syria over the weekend to establish whether chemical weapons had been used in Douma.
The U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, Kenneth Ward, said on April 16 that the Russians might have already visited the site of the alleged poison-gas attack, and expressed concern that “they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission.”
The British delegation to the organization called for the inspectors to be given “unfettered access” to Douma, adding that “Russia and Syria must cooperate.”
Earlier in the day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected Western allegations against Russia as “groundless,” asserting that Moscow has consistently supported an “objective” investigation into the suspected gas attack.
Peskov called the U.S.-led air strikes a “violation of international law” and an act of aggression.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov earlier suggested that the inspectors’ visit to the site had been delayed as a result of the Western air strikes.
Separately, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the BBC, “I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site.”
Lavrov also repeated Russia’s claim that there was no chemical attack in Douma, asserting that “what did take place was…staged.”
Witnesses and Western governments said helicopters dropped sarin and chlorine bombs that killed many children and women who were sheltering from the fighting between rebels and government troops.
The United States, Britain, and France launched more than 100 missiles, targeting three alleged chemical weapons facilities on April 14.
The United States and its allies have said the aim of the strikes was to prevent the further use of chemical weapons, not to turn the tide of the war in Syria or topple Assad.
With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, Reuters, AFP, and AP