In­spec­tors de­nied ac­cess to site in Syria

Rus­sian, Syr­ian forces deny ac­cess to site of sus­pected chem­i­cal weapons at­tack

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Tracy Wilkin­son Wash­ing­ton Bureau As­so­ci­ated Press con­trib­uted. tracy.wilkin­son@la­times.com

Rus­sian and Syr­ian forces blocked an in­ter­na­tional team from reach­ing the lo­ca­tion of a sus­pected poi­son gas at­tack.

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.

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 and other ac­tions.

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, say­ing re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries were worse than dur­ing the Cold War.

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.

May told leg­is­la­tors in the House of Com­mons that seek­ing their ap­proval would have been im­prac­ti­cal, both be­cause Par­lia­ment was on a spring break un­til Mon­day and be­cause some of the in­tel­li­gence be­hind the de­ci­sion was clas­si­fied.

French Prime Min­is­ter Edouard Philippe also jus­ti­fied the mil­i­tary ac­tion in a speech Mon­day to the Na­tional Assem­bly, France’s lower house of par­lia­ment.

Some French op­po­si­tion lead­ers have crit­i­cized the strikes, say­ing they were not le­git­i­mate.

HAS­SAN AM­MAR/AP

A man rides Mon­day past de­struc­tion in Douma, site of a sus­pected poi­son gas at­tack.

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