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Russia Fails To Curb New Powers Of Chemical Weapons Watchdog

NETHERLANDS -- An exterior view on the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague, April 18, 2018
THE HAGUE, Nov 20 (Reuters)

Members of the global chemical weapons watchdog on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a Russian-led push to undercut new powers that allow the agency to point the finger of blame for the use of banned toxic munitions in Syria.

The full membership of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons voted 99 to 27 in favour of passing an increased budget for 2019, which will partly fund the Western-backed new powers, and rejected proposals by Russia and Iran aimed at blocking it.

The votes came at a time of heightened tension between Russia, whose forces support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the West over systematic use of chemical weapons in the Syrian war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said giving the OPCW additional powers overstepped the boundaries of its founding treaty, the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention.

The new powers "of a prosecutor are a gross violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, decisions of the UN Security Council and contrary to the position of the majority of states parties to the convention," he was quoted by Sputnik News as saying.

Dutch authorities say they disrupted an attempted hack into the Hague-based OPCW in April, when the watchdog was looking into both the attack on ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Britain and chemical strikes in Syria which the West blames on Assad.

Scores of attacks with sarin gas and chlorine have been carried out in the Syrian conflict by government forces and rebel groups, according to a joint United Nations-OPCW investigation.

OPCW members on Tuesday voted down a Chinese-Russian proposal to block the new team mandated with assigning blame for attacks in Syria, a power that had been with a joint United Nations-OPCW investigation until its extension was vetoed by Russia last year.

China, which voted against the budget, called for an end to the "present atmosphere of polarity and politicization".

Russia had lobbied strongly among OPCW members to win a reversal of a decision in June to adopt a British-led proposal to set up a team to identify organisations or individuals responsible for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Opponents said allocating new powers to identify perpetrators will create more division at the OPCW, where Russia, much like at the United Nations, has blocked efforts to take action against its close ally Syria.

"This organisation will be left in shambles," said Magzhan Ilyassov, Kazakhstan's ambassador to the OPCW, who supports Russia's position. He said the new team should not be funded and that the OPCW "will continue to disintegrate and fall apart."

Under the June decision, a new team of 10 specialists will start work on Syria early next year.. The team's mandate will later be widened to identify those responsible for attacks worldwide.

The OPCW's new chief, Fernando Arias, on Tuesday won support for a budget increase of 3.6 percent to just below 70 million euros ($80 million), 2-2.5 million euros of which will partly fund the new team.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Richard Balmforth)