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Syria air strikes: Russia denies tampering with suspected chemical attack site

Syria air strikes: Russia denies tampering with suspected chemical attack site

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Media captionRussia’s foreign minister says the only evidence of a chemical attack came from the media

Russia has denied interfering with evidence at the site of a suspected Syrian government chemical weapons attack which led to Saturday’s military intervention by Western states.

In an interview for BBC’s Hardtalk, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site.”

He spoke as the OPCW chemical weapons watchdog held an urgent meeting.

International inspectors are trying to reach the site in Douma, near Damascus.

The UK ambassador to the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), Peter Wilson, quoted the agency’s director-general, Ahmet Üzümcü, as saying they were still waiting.

The Swedish delegation cited a briefing from Mr Üzümcü that said Syria and Russia were concerned that security on the ground could not be guaranteed.

The meeting in The Hague is behind closed doors, but Reuters news agency reports that the American ambassador, Kenneth Ward, expressed concern the Russian forces there might have tampered with evidence.

In other developments:

  • The US is expected to announce fresh economic sanctions against Russia
  • EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg said they understood the air strikes had had “the sole objective” of preventing further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government
  • UK PM Theresa May is to make a statement to Parliament after the opposition said it was wrong to have launched military action without consulting MPs
  • The French parliament is to discuss the air strikes

What happened in Douma?

The suspected attack, denied by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, was carried out in the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma on 7 April, reportedly killing dozens of people.

Two bombs filled with chemicals were reportedly dropped several hours apart on the town.

Syrian medical sources say bodies were found foaming at the mouth, and with discoloured skin and cornea burns.

US sources said they had obtained blood and urine samples from victims which had tested positive for chlorine and a nerve agent.

Control over the town has since passed from rebels to the Syrian and Russian military authorities.

What else did Lavrov say?

The Russian foreign minister again denied the use of chemical weapons in Douma.

“I cannot be impolite with the heads of other states, but you quoted the leaders of France and the UK and US and, frankly speaking, all the evidence they quoted was based on media reports and social media.”

The event did not take place, he said. “What did take place was the staged thing,” he added.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Chemical weapons inspectors are still waiting for access to Douma

Mr Lavrov also questioned why the US and its allies had carried out air strikes the day before international inspectors were due to arrive at the site.

On the air strikes, he repeated the Russian assertion that two-thirds of the more than 100 missiles fired into Syria on Saturday had failed to reach their targets.

Mr Lavrov said the “deconfliction channel” to prevent a clash between US and Russian forces had done its job and a confrontation had not been close.

But he added that Russia and the West were facing a situation worse than during the Cold War due to a lack of channels of communication between the two sides.

Catch up on the aftermath of the air strikes:

Are US forces staying on the ground in Syria?

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday he had persuaded US President Donald Trump not to pull troops out of Syria and instead commit “for the long term”.

The US has some 2,000 troops in eastern Syria, mainly supporting the fight against the Islamic State group.

But soon after Mr Macron’s comments, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said an early exit was still desirable.

“The US mission has not changed – the president has been clear that he wants US forces to come home as quickly as possible.”

What was targeted on Saturday?

The US says 105 missiles were launched and it believes none were intercepted by Syrian defences. It says Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been set back years.

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Media captionWatch the key moments over 12 hours – in two minutes

The Russians say 71 missiles were shot down by Syrian systems.

One of the three sites hit was the Barzeh complex, which the US says was a centre for development, production and testing of chemical and biological weapons, although Syria denies this.

The other two were suspected chemical weapons facilities at Him Shinshar near Homs.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Barzeh complex appears completely destroyed

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