Russia Accused of Blocking Inspectors From Accessing Alleged Chemical Weapons Attack Site

A team of international inspectors who arrived Saturday in the Syrian capital have not yet been permitted by Russian and Syrian authorities to access the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack, the director of the global chemical weapons watchdog agency said Monday.

“The Syrian and the Russian officials who participated in the preparatory meetings in Damascus have informed the FFM (Fact Finding Mission) Team that there were still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place,” Ahmet Üzümcü, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) told the group’s Executive Council at an emergency meeting Monday in The Hague, Netherlands.

Üzümcü added that, “in the meantime” the Syrian government had offered the OPCW the opportunity to interview 22 “witnesses who could be brought to Damascus.”

Üzümcü confirmed that the team had arrived in Damascus but not yet reached the area of the Douma suburb where an April 7 bombardment left at least 40 people dead. The U.S., Britain and France say Syrian leader Bashar Assad used a combination of chlorine gas and a nerve agent to poison his own people in the attack, and the three nations launched missile strikes on Friday targeting alleged chemical weapons sites in response.

Russia has denied blocking the OPCW team access to the Douma attack site, and dismissed an allegation from Britain that it was doing so, “the latest conjecture of our British colleagues.”

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted early Monday as saying the mission wasn’t allowed access because it hadn’t secured an approval of the U.N. Department for Safety and Security. Later, however, as the United Nations secretary-general’s spokesman said all necessary approvals for the mission to Douma had been granted, Russian Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. Dmitry Polyanskiy said Ryabkov had been misquoted earlier.

Earlier, Russian officials had suggested the inspectors couldn’t go to Douma due to security concerns caused by the U.S. and allied strikes early Saturday morning in Syria. Polyanskiy endorsed that reasoning in a tweet, saying “all obstacles” to the mission “might come as a result of the US-UK-FR aggressive action.”

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