Latest: Investigators barred from alleged attack site in Syria, OPCW official says

Latest: Investigators barred from alleged attack site in Syria, OPCW official says

Independent investigators have been prevented by Syrian and Russian officials from reaching the scene of an alleged chemical attack near the Syrian capital, an official said.

The barrier for the inspectors comes days after the US, UK and France bombarded sites they said were linked to Syria's chemical weapons programme.

Policemen and civilians stand in front of damaged buildings in the town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, near Damascus, Syria. Credit: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar.

The lack of access to the town of Douma by investigators from the watchdog group, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), leaves questions about the April 7 attack unanswered.

OPCW director-general Ahmet Uzumcu said Syrian and Russian officials cited "pending security issues" in keeping its inspectors from reaching Douma.

"The team has not yet deployed to Douma," two days after arriving in Syria, Uzumcu told an executive council of the OPCW in The Hague.

Syrian authorities are offering 22 people to interview as witnesses instead, he said, adding that he hoped "all necessary arrangements will be made ... to allow the team to deploy to Douma as soon as possible".

2pm: UN permit holding up chemical weapons probe in Syria, Russia says; Macron clarifies claims that 'France persuaded Trump to strike'

A senior Russian diplomat has said inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog cannot access the site of an alleged chemical attack near the Syrian capital without an appropriate UN permit.

Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov's remarks could indicate a possible attempt to bog down the team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), though both Russia and the Syrian government have welcomed the visit in the wake of the West's air strikes in Syria over the weekend.

Mr Ryabkov told reporters in Moscow that what is hampering a swift resolution of the mission's visit to the Syrian town of Douma, near Damascus, the site of the alleged chemical attack, is "the consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action", a reference to Saturday's punitive air strikes.

A team from the OPCW arrived in Syria shortly before the air strikes. It has met with Syrian officials but has not visited the town at the centre of the controversy.

Government forces and Russian troops have deployed in Douma, which has now fallen under the control of the Syrian government.

"It is the lack of approval by the UN Department for Safety and Security for OPCW experts to visit the site in Douma that is the problem," Mr Ryabkov told reporters, adding that he checked just a short while ago on was delaying their visit.

Russia said it is not curtailing the mission's visit, and appears instead to be blaming the international organisation for the delay.

Syrian opposition and activists have criticised the Russian deployment in the town, saying that evidence of chemical weapons' use might no longer be found. Russia and Syria deny the attack took place.

The Kremlin quickly denied reports that Russia was not allowing the OPCW mission in, without elaborating.

Mr Ryabkov said: "As far as I understand what is hampering a speedy resolution of this problem is the consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action that Great Britain and other countries conducted on Saturday."

The OPCW is holding an emergency meeting in The Hague to discuss the suspected chemical attack in Douma.

12.50pm: Macron clarifies claims that 'France persuaded Trump to strike'; UK dismisses Russian suggestion that it was behind Syria chemical attack as 'ludicrous'

French president Emmanuel Macron has clarified comments that he "convinced" his US counterpart Donald Trump to maintain a US military presence in Syria - a remark which prompted a rebuttal from the White House.

Mr Macron maintained that he "never said" either the United States or France would stay engaged long-term in Syria in a military sense - hours after saying in a live Sunday interview that he had managed to change Mr Trump's mind on withdrawing troops.

Mr Macron said both French and US positions were in line, and the main aim in Syria was the "war against ISIS (Islamic State)".

However, Mr Macron said that by joining forces with France and the UK for last Saturday's air strikes, the US "fully realised that our responsibility went above and beyond the war against IS, and that it was a humanitarian responsibility as well on the ground."

11.30am: UK dismisses Russian suggestion that it was behind Syria chemical attack as 'ludicrous'; France persuaded Trump to strike in Syria, says Macron

The UK dismissed as "ludicrous" a suggestion from Russia that it was behind the Douma chemical weapons attack.

At a meeting of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), UK representative Peter Wilson said: "Russia has argued that the attack on Douma was somehow staged, or faked.

"They have even suggested that the UK was behind the attack. That is ludicrous.

"The attack on Douma was not reported by just a sole source in opposition to the regime. There are multiple eye witness accounts, substantial video footage, accounts from first responders and medical evidence."

He said Moscow was "spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation" to undermine the integrity of the OPCW's fact-finding mission to Syria.

Earlier, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, arriving for a summit of European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg, said: "The action that was taken by France, by the UK, by the United States in launching calibrated and proportionate strikes against Assad's chemical weapons capabilities, was entirely right, entirely the right thing to do - right for the UK and right for the world.

He stressed it was "not an attempt to change the tide of the war in Syria or to have regime change" and "the Syrian war in many ways will go on in its horrible, miserable way".

"But it was the world saying that we have had enough of the use of chemical weapons, the erosion of that taboo that has been in place for 100 years has gone too far under Bashar Assad," he said.

6.40am: France persuaded Trump to strike in Syria, says Macron

France persuaded US president Donald Trump to stay in Syria and launch air strikes as punishment for an alleged chemical weapons attack, French president Emmanuel Macron has said.

Appearing live on French television BFM and online investigative site Mediapart, the 40-year-old leader said the US, Britain and France had "full international legitimacy to intervene" with the strikes, to enforce international humanitarian law.

The allies fired missiles early on Saturday at three chemical weapons facilities in Syria to punish the regime for the alleged attack on the town of Douma.

"It was retaliation, not an act of war," Macron said in justifying the operation a day before the French parliament was set to debate it.

"Ten days ago president Trump wanted the United States of America to withdraw from Syria. We convinced him to remain," he said.

He said France now wanted to involve Western powers, Russia and Turkey in a new diplomatic initiative to find a sustainable political solution in Syria.

Macron also offered to play the role of intermediary between the United States and Russia, whose relationship has been on edge over the chemical weapons attack and amid allegations that Russia tried to interfere in the US 2016 presidential election.

The French leader will make a state visit to the US next week and is scheduled to travel to Russia next month.

- PA

 

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