LONDON — Western diplomats accused Syria and Russia on Monday of preventing weapons inspectors from reaching the site of an alleged chemical attack by the Syrian government that led to a series of 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.
Even as the war in Syria exacts a fearful toll on the ground, discussion of the alleged chemical attack, like so much of the international posturing about the war, was 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.
Syrian and Russian officials have told the OPCW 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. The meeting was held behind closed doors, but the organization released the prepared statements of Uzumcu and those of some other officials.
The British delegation to the organization wrote on Twitter: “Russia & Syria have not yet allowed access to Douma. Unfettered access essential. Russia & Syria must cooperate.” Other Western diplomats confirmed that Syria and Russia were impeding the team.
Senior Russian diplomats said that it was the United Nations, not Syria or Russia, that had prevented inspectors from entering Douma. “The problem was the absence of the U.N. 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.
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A spokesman for the United Nations, Stéphane Dujarric, disputed the Russian explanation. “The U.N. has given them all the necessary clearances,” he said. “We’re supporting the team as much as we can.”
The OPCW declined to comment, and did not even say whether its inspectors had reached Douma, saying in a statement, “We are unable to share operational details.”
The U.S. ambassador to the OPCW said at the meeting Monday that Russia could be trying to conceal evidence of chemical weapons.
“It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site,” the ambassador, Kenneth D. Ward, said. “We are concerned they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission to conduct an effective investigation.”
In an interview with the BBC, Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said, “I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site.”
The United States and its allies Britain and France …read more