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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Chemical weapons watchdogs rejects Russia’s bid for new Syria attack probe

Russia's draft proposal ignored the fact that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is already investigating the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, which killed 87.
A civil defence member breathes through an oxygen mask, after a toxic gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. Ammar Abdullah / Reuters
A civil defence member breathes through an oxygen mask, after a toxic gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. Ammar Abdullah / Reuters

THE HAGUE // The global chemical arms watchdog on Thursday “overwhelmingly” rejected a Russian-Iranian move to launch a new investigation into a chemical attack in Syria. Delegates instead backed the probe which is already underway.

A draft decision put forward by Moscow and Tehran had called for a new investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) “to establish whether chemical weapons were used in Khan Sheikhoun and how they were delivered to the site of the reported incident”.

But it ignored that the OPCW, based in The Hague, is already investigating the April 4 attack on the rebel-held town in Idlib province which killed 87, including many children.

The draft had also called for investigators to visit the Shayrat airbase, which the United States bombed after the attack, to “verify allegations concerning the storage of chemical weapons” there.

But the Russian move had “attempted to undercut” the OPCW’s existing fact-finding mission (FFM), the British delegation said on Twitter.

“The OPCW executive council has overwhelmingly rejected the Russian and Iranian decision. Needless to say — #OPCW FFM investigation continues,” the tweet from the British delegation to the watchdog said.

The Belgian representative said the fact-finding team deserved the OPCW’s full confidence and there was no need “to put in place a new structure.”

The move came as OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu said on Wednesday that “incontrovertible” OPCW test results had shown sarin gas or a similar substance were used in the attack.

The tests were conducted on samples from three people killed in the attack and seven survivors and analysed at four OPCW-designated laboratories.

Western nations have accused the Syrian regime of carrying out the air raid, but Moscow, Syria’s closest ally, insists the Assad regime is not to blame.

Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Thursday: “Not one representative of the OPCW has been there (Khan Sheikhoun) in the two weeks. Where, by whom and how were the samples taken? If there truly had been sarin in Khan Sheikhoun, then how can the OPCW explain the charlatans from the White Helmets hopping about in sarin fumes without protective equipment?”

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The draft decision proposed by Russia and Iran also sought to urge member states to “provide national experts for participation in the investigation.”

That would have enabled Moscow to deploy its own experts alongside the OPCW’s independent teams in a bid “to discredit the results” so far, one source close to the discussions said.

In an unprecedented step, the OPCW’s executive council in November condemned Syria’s use of toxic weapons — the council’s first public condemnation of a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

It came after a joint UN-OPCW investigation concluded in October that the Syrian air force had dropped chlorine barrel-bombs from helicopters on three opposition-held villages in 2014 and 2015. The same investigation also found that ISIL militants had used mustard gas in August 2015 in Syria.

Russia last week vetoed a UN draft resolution which condemned the April 4 attack on Kahn Sheikhoun and demanded the Syrian government cooperate with an investigation. It was the eighth time Russia had blocked Security Council action against Syria.

After Moscow initially said a Syrian air raid had struck a “terrorist warehouse” containing “toxic substances,” Russian president Vladimir Putin last week accused Assad’s opponents of planning to stage chemical attacks to lure Washington deeper into the conflict.

Meanwhile in Geneva, the United Nations revealed that suicide bombers who killed more than 120 Syrians awaiting evacuation had disguised themselves as aid workers and may have specifically targeted children.

The victims in the suicide car bombing last Saturday at a rebel-held transit point included 68 children. Scores of people were injured.

“Someone pretending even to distribute aid and attracting the children produced that horrific explosion,” UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said.

At the same news conference, the head of the UN’s humanitarian task force for Syria, Jan Egeland, saidt the assailants were “disguised as a charity”.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack at the Rashidin transit point west of Aleppo. The blast, which tore through buses carrying civilians, also halted evacuations from the government-controlled towns of Fuaa and Kafraya.

But they have resumed, with armed rebels guarding civilians at the transit point on Thursday, and allowing no cars near the site apart from

a Red Crescent vehicle that was allowed to distribute aid.

* Agence France-Presse