Monday, April 16, 2018 | 8:43 a.m.
BEIRUT — Independent investigators were prevented by Syrian and Russian officials Monday from reaching the scene of an alleged chemical attack near the Syrian capital, an official said, days after the U.S., France and Britain bombarded sites they said were linked to Syria's chemical weapons program.
The lack of access to the town of Douma by inspectors from the watchdog group, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has left questions about the April 7 attack unanswered.
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," two days after arriving in Syria, Uzumcu told an executive council of the OPCW in The Hague.
Syrian authorities were offering 22 people to interview as witnesses instead, he said, adding that he hoped "all necessary arrangements will be made ... to allow the team to deploy to Douma as soon as possible."
The U.S. and France say they have evidence that poison gas was used in Douma, east of Damascus, killing dozens of people, and that President Bashar Assad's military was behind it, but they have made none of that evidence public. Syria and its ally Russia deny any such attack took place.
Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov blamed the Western airstrikes carried out early Saturday for holding up a mission by the OPCW team to Douma. He said the inspectors cannot access the site because it needs permission from U.N. security experts.
Ryabkov's remarks could indicate a possible attempt to bog down the team, even though both Russia and the Syrian government have welcomed the OPCW visit.
He told reporters in Moscow that what is hampering a speedy resolution of the visit to Douma was "the consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action," a reference to the punitive airstrikes.
The OPCW team arrived in Syria shortly before the airstrikes and met with Syrian officials. Government forces and Russian troops have been deployed in Douma, which is now controlled by the Syrian government.
"It is the lack of approval by the U.N. Department for Safety and Security for OPCW experts to visit the site in Douma that is the problem," Ryabkov told reporters.
Syrian opposition and activists have criticized the Russia deployment in the town, saying that evidence of chemical weapons' use might no longer be found.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denied that Russia interfered with any evidence.
"I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site," Lavrov told the BBC in an interview Monday.
The Kremlin also denied that Russia was not allowing the OPCW mission in, without elaborating.
"As far as I understand what is hampering a speedy resolution of this problem is the consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action that Great Britain and other countries conducted on Saturday," said Ryabkov.
The OPCW was holding an emergency meeting in The Hague to discuss the suspected chemical attack in Douma.
Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said earlier that his country is "fully ready" to cooperate with the OPCW mission. He said government officials met with the delegation, which has been in Damascus for three days, a number of times to discuss cooperation.
Syria has in the past accused the West of politically manipulating the OPCW mission.
At least 40 people are believed to have died in the attack on Douma, which until Saturday was the last rebel-held town near Damascus.
The OPCW team dispatched to Syria to investigate does not have a mandate to assign blame.
Russia vetoed last year the extension of the mandate of another joint U.N.-OPCW joint body in charge of determining who was behind other chemical attacks in Syria. The joint body was created in 2015 and found the Syrian government responsible for using sarin gas last year in Khan Shaykhoun, a rebel-held area in northern Syria.
Meanwhile, NATO's secretary general said the U.S.-led airstrikes will reduce the Syrian government's capabilities of carrying out new chemical attacks.
Jens Stoltenberg said the strikes were a "clear message" to Assad, Russia and Iran that the use of chemical weapons is not acceptable and that the allies would not stand idle. He spoke in an interview with Turkey's NTV television on Monday.
In Damascus, hundreds of Syrians gathered Monday in Omayyad Square in Damascus, rallying in support of their armed forces, which they said had succeeded in confronting the airstrikes by the West.
State TV broadcast the rally live from the central square, where protesters waved Syrian flags in a demonstration that was dubbed a "salute to the achievements of the Arab Syrian Army." They also set off fireworks and unleashed celebratory gunfire.
Shouts of "Allah, Syria, and only Bashar," a reference to Assad, rang out.
The strikes have ratcheted up international tension, as the U.S. and Russia exchanged threats of retaliation.
The White House said a decision on new economic sanctions against Russia will be made soon, not committing to an announcement that U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had said to expect for enabling Syria to continue to use chemical weapons.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: "We are considering additional sanctions on Russia and a decision will be made in the near future."
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the military strikes violated the U.N. Charter and that if they continue, "it will inevitably entail chaos in international relations," according to a Kremlin statement on Sunday.
Douma was the last rebel holdout in the eastern Ghouta enclave, which was the target of a government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds and displaced tens of thousands of people.
Syrian media, Russian and Syrian officials have sought to play down the impact of the airstrikes, saying the Syrian air defenses intercepted most of the missiles. The Pentagon says no missiles were engaged.
Also Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May was to face angry lawmakers for authorizing the strikes without a vote in Parliament. Her office said she planned to tell them the strikes were "in Britain's national interest" and were carried out to stop further suffering from chemical weapons attacks.
Vasilyeva reported from Moscow.