Experts cleared to enter gas attack site
State-run media said Syria’s air defences had confronted a new “aggression”, shooting down missiles over the central region of Homs yesterday.
The strike came ahead of the scheduled arrival in Douma today of chemical-weapons experts to investigate a poison gas attack.
The reports did not say who carried out the pre-dawn strikes in Homs, the region hosting two of the three chemical weapons facilities targeted by a mass allied missile attack on Saturday.
Syrian Central Media said the missiles targeted the al-Shayrat air base, from where Syrian aircraft last year launched a gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun. Last April Donald Trump ordered a retaliatory strike in which 59 Tomahawk missile were unleashed on the airfield.
Earlier this month four Iranian troops were killed in an air strike on Syria’s T4 air base in Homs. Syria and its allies Iran and Russia blamed the April 9 attack on Israel, which declined to comment.
Israel also refused to confirm or deny yesterday’s raid.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said there were no US or coalition operations in that area yesterday.
On Saturday the US, Britain and France fired 105 missiles at the chemical weapons joints in Homs and Damascus. The strikes were in response to the April 7 chlorine and possible sarin gas attack that killed at least 87 people in Douma, a town in the then rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta.
The US, Britain, France and Russia faced off on Monday night in emergency talks at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.
OPCW director-general Ahmet Uzumcu said his ninestrong, volunteer team had reached Damascus but had yet to deploy to Douma. Syrian and Russian officials had warned of “pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place,” Mr Uzumcu said.
Igor Kirillov, head of Russia’s radiological, biological and chemical protection unit, said the roads still had to be de-mined and cleared and were to be tested by UN security services last night.
“On Wednesday is when we plan the arrival of the OPCW experts,” he said at the Russian embassy in The Hague.
However, the US ambassador to the OPCW, Ken Ward, said 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,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the BBC.
Russia’s ambassador to The Netherlands, Alexander Shulgin, also called the claim a “blatant lie”. He said the allies were “standing in the way” of the investigation by ordering air strikes “in the blink of an eye” before the OPCW team had had a chance to do its work.
Despite the OPCW team being delayed, Syrian authorities organised a tour of the town for the foreign press, including a visit to the main hospital to which victims of the alleged gas attack where taken.
Medical student Marwan Jaber said no chemical weapons were used on April 7. “Suffocation cases arrived as a result of the debris, dust, fire and smoke. They were given routine treatment,” he said.
The missiles fired from allied ships and aircraft on Saturday constituted the biggest Western attack against the regime in the seven-year war against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The targeted sites were largely empty and said to be facilities for chemical weapons storage or production.
Following the Saturday strikes, British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron faced anger from their MPs. Despite polls showing scant support for the move, Mrs May said it had been her “responsibility as Prime Minister to make these decisions”, while Mr Macron defended his move as part of his constitutional powers.
France urged OPCW nations to boost the organisation’s work so it could completely dismantle Syria’s “secret” toxic weapons program. And the US called for a clear condemnation by the OPCW of “the Syrian government for its reign of chemical terror”.
The three Western powers warned they would repeat the strikes if Syria used chemical weapons again.
Syrian regime forces have now entered Douma and declared the entire Eastern Ghouta region fully retaken, ending a five-year siege and reclaiming an opposition bastion on the edge of the capital.