Syria: Missiles shot down over Homs
Pre-dawn strikes target air base
BEIRUT: Syrian state-run media reported that the country’s air defences confronted a new “aggression,’’ shooting down missiles over the central region of Homs early yesterday.
The reports did not say who carried out the pre-dawn strikes. The government-run Syrian Central Media said the missiles targeted the Shayrat air base in Homs.
Earlier this month, four Iranian military personnel were killed in an airstrike on Syria’s T4 air base, also in Homs. Syria and its main allies Iran and Russia blamed Israel for that attack. Israel did not confirmed or deny mounting the raid.
The reports came just a few days after the United States, Britain and France conducted airstrikes targeting alleged chemical weapons facilities in Syria, in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack that they blamed on the Syrian government.
Experts from the international chemical weapons watchdog are now in Damascus and have been waiting to visit the site of the suspected chemical attack in the town of Douma, just east of Damascus.
On Monday, Syrian and Russian authorities prevented investigators from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from going to the scene, the head of the OPCW said, blocking international efforts to establish what happened and who was to blame.
The US and France say they have evidence that poison gas was used in the April 7 attack in Douma, killing at least 40 people, and that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military was behind it.
But they have made none of that evidence public, even after they, along with Britain, carried out airstrikes on Saturday, bombing sites they said were linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Syria and its ally Russia deny any chemical attack took place, and Russian officials went even further, accusing Britain of staging a “fake’’ chemical attack. British Prime Minister Theresa May accused the two countries — whose forces now control the town east of Damascus — of trying to cover up evidence.
The lack of access to Douma has left unanswered questions about the attack. 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,’’ Mr Uzumcu told an executive council meeting of the OPCW in The Hague on Monday.
Instead, Syrian authorities offered them 22 people to interview as witnesses, he said, adding that he hoped “all necessary arrangements will be made ... to allow the team to deploy to Douma as soon as possible.’’
Russian military police were ready to help protect the OPCW experts on their visit to Douma, said Maj Gen Yuri Yevtushenko of the Russian military’s Reconciliation Center in Syria. Igor Kirillov, a Russian chemical weapons protection expert in The Hague, said the team is set to visit the site today.
Earlier on Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the inspectors could not go to the site because they needed approval from the UN Department for Safety and Security. He denied that Russia was hampering the mission and suggested the approval was held up because of the Western airstrikes.
However, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the United Nations has “provided the necessary clearances for the OPCW team to go about its work in Douma. We have not denied the team any request for it to go to Douma.’’
Until Saturday, Douma was the last rebel-held town near Damascus, and the target of a government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands.
Hours after the alleged chemical attack, the rebel faction that controlled the town, the Army of Islam, relented and was evacuated along with thousands of residents.
The Associated Press, during a government-organised visit on Monday to Douma, spoke to survivors and witnesses who described being hit by gas. Several said a strange smell started spreading and people screamed, “It’s chlorine! It’s chlorine!’’
The AP visited a two-room underground shelter where Khaled Mahmoud Nuseir said 47 people were killed, including his pregnant wife and two daughters, 18-month-old Qamar and 2 1/2-year-old Nour. A strange smell lingered, nine days after the attack.
Nuseir and two other residents accused the rebel Army of Islam of carrying out the attack.
A pigeon keeper watches his birds fly from the roof of his home in the war-damaged Bab Dreib neighbourhood of the old city in Homs, Syria, in this January 16 photo.