Inspectors kept out of Syrian town
Russia, Syria deny access to site of suspected attack as report says new strikes intercepted
International team denied access to site of suspected chemical weapons attack. Nation & World, Page 7
WASHINGTON — International inspectors sent to collect air, water and ground samples from the site of a suspected poison gas attack in Syria last week were blocked Monday by Russian and Syrian forces for security reasons, the watchdog agency’s director said.
Early Tuesday, meanwhile, Syrian state-run television said Syria’s air defenses confronted a new “aggression,” shooting down missiles over the country’s center. The report came days after the U.S., Britain and France conducted airstrikes targeting alleged chemical weapons facilities.
It did not elaborate or say who carried out the airstrikes. A Pentagon spokeswoman said there was no U.S. military activity in the area. The Syrian Central Media said the missiles targeted the Shayrat air base in Homs.
Regarding the inspectors, the delay in obtaining independent confirmation of suspected chemical weapons use came as the White House postponed plans to add sanctions on Russia for what the Trump administration said was its support of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s poison gas program.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had said Sunday that new sanctions would be announced Monday, but the White House pulled back. “We are considering additional sanctions on Russia, and a decision will be made in the near future,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters.
She did not say if Haley had misspoken or if President Donald Trump had changed his mind to avoid worsening relations with Moscow.
The Trump administration has been taking an increasingly tough line on Russia even as the president has been reluctant to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin for his government’s meddling in the 2016 election.
The confusion emerged as nine inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons waited in Damascus for permission to visit Douma, a suburb east of the Syrian capital that was attacked on April 7.
U.S. officials say Assad’s forces killed more than 40 people, including children, with chlorine gas and possibly sarin, a banned nerve agent. But U.S. intelligence has been unable to collect ironclad evidence of which chemical agents were used.
U.S. and British officials have accused Russian units in Douma of trying to hide or tamper with evidence of the chemical attack, a claim Moscow denies.
Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said in New York that the OPCW team had all “necessary clearances” to collect samples in Douma.
But Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the OPCW, which is based in The Hague, said in a report to member states that Syrian and Russian officials had contended “there were still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place.” Uzumcu expressed hope the inspectors could visit Douma “as soon as possible.”
U.S., French and British forces fired more than 100 missiles at three targets in Syria early Saturday in retaliation for the Douma attack.
The three facilities developed, produced or stored chlorine or sarin, Pentagon officials said, and all appeared heavily damaged.
Syria has denied stockpiling or using chemical weapons, which are illegal under international law. Russia, which backs Assad, also has denied that a chemical attack occurred.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday repeated his government’s assertions that no chemical attack took place and said photographs and videos that showed people choking to death and other symptoms of chemical poisoning were “staged.”
Speaking to the BBC, Lavrov angrily condemned Washington’s attempts to blame and punish Russia.
Despite the unified support of the airstrikes presented by the international allies, British and French leaders faced skepticism at home from lawmakers.
Prime Minister Theresa May told restive lawmakers in London on Monday that the military mission against Syria was right both legally and morally.
The British government is not legally bound to seek Parliament’s approval for military strikes, although it is customary to do so, and many lawmakers expressed anger that they were not consulted.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe also justified the military action in a speech Monday to France’s lower house of parliament.
A man rides Monday past destruction in Douma, site of a suspected poison gas attack.