SYRIA AND RUS­SIA BAR TEAM FROM CHEM­I­CALS WATCH­DOG

In­ves­ti­ga­tors blocked from Douma where gas at­tack killed at least 40

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The Bri­tish em­bassy to the Nether­lands yes­ter­day said Rus­sia and Syria had not yet al­lowed mem­bers of a fact-find­ing mis­sion to enter the site of a chem­i­cal at­tack in Syria.

A team from the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for the Pro­hi­bi­tion of Chem­i­cal Weapons was ex­pected to visit Douma in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, where a chem­i­cal at­tack – re­port­edly us­ing chlo­rine and sarin – killed at least 40 peo­ple and in­jured hun­dreds.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the claims were ground­less and that Moscow was in favour of “an im­par­tial in­ves­ti­ga­tion” into the at­tack.

Rus­sia’s Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Ryabkov said that the only real ob­sta­cle faced by the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s team in Syria was the “con­se­quences of the il­le­gal, un­law­ful mil­i­tary ac­tion” – a ref­er­ence to the puni­tive air strikes car­ried out by the US, UK and France on Satur­day morn­ing.

Mr Ryabkov also said that the team could not have ac­cess to the site with­out an ap­pro­pri­ate UN per­mit.

Mean­while Syr­ian state TV broad­cast in­ter­views with doc­tors claim­ing they had found no trace of poi­sonous gas in Douma.

The watch­dog was due to con­vene yes­ter­day to dis­cuss its team’s find­ings, as its in­spec­tors ex­am­ined the site in the Da­m­as­cus sub­urbs.

Moscow has vowed not to in­ter­fere in the team’s work and crit­i­cised the US, say­ing the week­end strikes on three bases in Syria were a bid to “un­der­mine the cred­i­bil­ity” of the mis­sion.

Mr Peskov also dis­missed French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron’s claims that the week­end air strikes had driven a wedge be­tween Ankara and Moscow.

The fall­out from the US-led re­sponse con­tin­ues to re­ver­ber­ate, with Mr Macron claim­ing to have per­suaded Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to keep his troops in Syria.

In Lon­don, Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May told MPs dur­ing an emer­gency ses­sion in par­lia­ment that wait­ing for UN au­thor­ity to take ac­tion over chem­i­cal weapons at­tacks in Syria “would mean a Rus­sian veto on our for­eign pol­icy”.

The US-led strikes were the big­gest in­ter­na­tional at­tack on Pres­i­dent Bashar Al As­sad’s regime since the start of the seven-year civil war.

They have risked con­fronta­tion with Moscow, Mr Al As­sad’s top ally, with Mr Putin warn­ing that more at­tacks would spark chaos, while Wash­ing­ton vowed eco­nomic sanc­tions against Rus­sia rather than mil­i­tary ac­tion.

More than 100 US, French and Bri­tish mis­siles de­stroyed sus­pected chem­i­cal weapons de­vel­op­ment and stor­age cen­tres, in a move praised by Mr Trump as “per­fectly ex­e­cuted” – al­though the build­ings were mostly empty and Syria’s gov­ern­ment and op­po­si­tion ridiculed its lack of im­pact.

The team will also have to deal with the risk that ev­i­dence of may have been moved from the site at­tacked by the al­lies

The three west­ern al­lies swiftly re­verted to diplo­matic ef­forts, with lead­ers fac­ing strong crit­i­cism at home over the at­tack.

But their unity ap­peared to be shaken on Sun­day when Wash­ing­ton re­but­ted Mr Macron’s claim that Paris had con­vinced Mr Trump to stay en­gaged in Syria “for the long term”.

White House spokes­woman Sarah San­ders said the US mis­sion had not changed and that Mr Trump wanted troops home “as quickly as pos­si­ble”.

Satur­day’s strikes came hours be­fore the weapons in­ves­ti­ga­tors ar­rived in Da­m­as­cus. They will face a dif­fi­cult task, with all in­volved hav­ing pre-empted their find­ings, in­clud­ing west­ern pow­ers, which jus­ti­fied the strikes by claim­ing they had proof such weapons were used.

The team will also have to deal with the risk that ev­i­dence may have been moved from the site, which is in an area con­trolled by Rus­sian mil­i­tary po­lice for the past week.

“That pos­si­bil­ity al­ways has to be taken into ac­count, and in­ves­ti­ga­tors will look for ev­i­dence that shows whether the in­ci­dent site has been tam­pered with,” said Ralf Trapp, a con­sul­tant and mem­ber of a pre­vi­ous mis­sion to Syria.

The watch­dog de­clared that the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s chem­i­cal weapons stock­pile had been re­moved in 2014, only to con­firm later that sarin was used in an at­tack last year in the north­ern town of Khan Sheikhoun.

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