Priest stands by Christian leaders’ Syria visit
DIPLOMATIC TENSIONS between the UK and Russia deepened amid claims that Moscow was blocking investigators from reaching the site of a chemical weapons attack in Syria.
The UK said it was “essential” the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was granted “unfettered access” to Douma.
Russia strongly denied interfering with the work of inspectors attempting to reach the site of the atrocity, which the UK and Western allies have said was perpetrated by the regime of Moscow’s ally Bashar Assad.
And Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said relations between Moscow and the West were worse than at the time of the Cold War.
He said the UK, Nato and European Union had closed the normal channels of communication with Russia which provided safeguards against confrontation.
Asked if he felt he was in a new Cold War, Mr Lavrov told the BBC’s “I think it is worse, because during the Cold War there were channels of communication and there was no obsession with Russophobia, which looks like genocide by sanctions.”
The UK’s representative at the OPCW Peter Wilson said: “It is imperative that the Syrian Arab Republic and the Russian Federation offer the OPCW fact-finding mission team their full co-operation and assistance to carry out their difficult task.”
He dismissed as “ludicrous” a Russian claim the UK had helped stage the attack in Douma, which killed up to 75 people, including a number of children. He 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.”
He said Moscow was “spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation” to undermine the integrity of the OPCW’s fact-finding mission to Syria.
Relations between Russia and the UK have been plunged into the deep freeze following the nerve agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.
The UK’s claims about interference with the OPCW’s work in Syria were dismissed by Moscow.
“Russia confirms its adherence to the provision of security for the mission and does not plan to interfere with its work”, the country’s representative at the OPCW said according to Russian news agency Tass.
Meanwhile, Mr Lavrov denied Russia had “tampered” with the site of the attack and insisted there was no proof that chemical weapons had been used.
The Russian foreign minister told the BBC: “There is no proof that on April 7 chemical weapons were used in Douma.
“I cannot be impolite to the heads of other states... but frankly speaking, all the evidence they quoted was based on media reports and social networks.
“A canister lying on a bed and the bed is intact and the window glass is not broken – look, you need to be a bit more serious.
“Why strike the day before the OPCW is going to move there and verify the fact which they assert was a fact?”
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson insisted the strikes – co-ordinated with action by the United States and France – were “right for the UK and right for the world”. Mr Johnson, speaking at a summit of European Union foreign ministers, 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.
Four Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s joined the missile strikes at 2am on Saturday. A PRIEST from a delegation of Christian leaders and peers who visited Damascus in the aftermath of last week’s air strikes has defended meeting with Syrian regime officials.
Giles Fraser, a priest from Kennington, south-east London, joined church figures including the Rev Andrew Ashdown and peers Baroness Cox and Lord Dykes for the trip over the weekend.
The group had travelled to the conflict-shattered region to visit the minority Christian community, but also met with 20 MPs and Hammouda Youssef Sabbagh, speaker of the People’s Council of Syria, the legislative body dominated by President Bashar Assad’s party.
Their arrival on Saturday morning came just hours after the Syrian capital was hammered by a series of British-backed air strikes targeting suspected chemical weapons facilities.
Mr Fraser said the delegation decided to push ahead with the trip despite potential dangers and the fraught political climate.
Speaking from Damascus on Monday morning, he told the Press Association: “This has been arranged for ages; we came at the invitation of the Syrian Orthodox Church, it was church people going to see church people.
“We were in Beirut on the night that the bombing happened, we decided that as the Church it would be wrong if we suddenly decided we weren’t coming.”
The group attended a Sunday service in the city before meeting with a group of politicians with whom the UK had long severed diplomatic ties.
On their meeting with officials from the Assad regime, Mr Fraser said: “The Syrian church has put together our programme.
“There were a group that met with MPs, that was what they wanted us to listen to so we sat and listened to them.”
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the EU Council building in Luxembourg yesterday.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking after Theresa May’s statement to MPs in the Commons yesterday.