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U.K.: Chemical-Arms Inspectors Not Allowed Access To Douma

UN vehicles carrying the fact-finding team of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrive at the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus on April 14.
UN vehicles carrying the fact-finding team of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrive at the Four Seasons hotel in Damascus on April 14.

Chemical-weapons inspectors have not yet been granted access to the site of a suspected gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma, the British delegation to the Organization for the Prohibition for Chemical weapons (OPCW) has said.

The suspected attack in Douma, outside Damascus, in which the World Health Organization has said 43 people who died suffered "symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals," occurred on April 7.

The United States, Britain, and France launched air strikes against Syrian government facilities on April 14 in response.

OPCW inspectors arrived in Syria over the weekend to establish whether chemical weapons had been used in Douma.

An emergency closed-doors meeting of the OPCW was also convened on April 16 in The Hague to assess the situation. The British delegation to the meeting said in a statement posted on Twitter that Russia and Syria had not yet allowed inspectors access to Douma.

"Unfettered access [is] essential" the statement said. "Russia and Syria must cooperate."

Russia -- Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main military backer -- suggested that the inspectors' visit to the site had been delayed as a result of the Western air strikes. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the British statement "conjecture."

U.S. Envoy: Condemn Syrian 'Reign Of Chemical Terror'

Meanwhile, the U.S. envoy to the OPCW called on the international watchdog to act against ongoing use of banned poisonous weapons, and said Russia might have tampered with the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Douma.

"It is long overdue that this council condemns the Syrian government for its reign of chemical terror and demands international accountability for those responsible for these heinous acts," Ambassador Kenneth Ward told the meeting in The Hague, in comments seen by Reuters.

"It is our understanding the Russians may have visited the attack site," Ward said. "It is our concern that they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission to conduct an effective investigation."

Witnesses and Western governments said helicopters dropped sarin and chlorine bombs that killed many children and women who were sheltering from the fighting between rebels and government troops.

The United States, Britain, and France launched more than 100 missiles, targeting three alleged chemical-weapons facilities on April 14.

The United States and its allies have said the aim of the strikes was to prevent the further use of chemical weapons, not to turn the tide of the war in Syria or topple Assad.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reinforced this point on April 16 as he arrived at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

"I'm afraid the Syrian war will go on in its horrible, miserable way. But it was the world saying that we've had enough of the use of chemical weapons. The erosion of that taboo that has been in place for a hundred years has gone too far under Bashar al-Assad and it was time that we said 'no' and it was totally, therefore, the right thing to do."

A statement adopted by the 28 EU foreign ministers at the meeting said, “We strongly condemn the continued and repeated use of chemical weapons by the regime in Syria, including the latest attack in Douma, which is a grave breach of international law and an affront to human decency.”

"The targeted U.S., French, and U.K. air strikes on chemical-weapons facilities in Syria were specific measures having been taken with the sole objective to prevent the further use of chemical weapons and chemical substances as weapons by the Syrian regime to kill its own people,“ it said.

Referring to economic sanctions, it said that "the European Union will continue to consider further restrictive measures against Syria as long as the repression continues."

The ministers gave no indication that the EU would join the United States, which is expected to announce new targeted sanctions against Russia over its support for Assad.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on April 15 that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would announce the new sanctions on April 16.

"They will go directly to any sort of companies that were dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical-weapons use," Haley said.

"I think everyone is going to feel it at this point," she added. "I think everyone knows that we sent a strong message, and our hope is that they listen to it."

With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, Reuters, AFP, and AP