Inspectors’ access to gas attack site blocked due to ‘security concerns’

Britain's ambassador to the Netherlands and permanent representative to the chemical weapons watchdog OPCW, Peter Wilson, center, is interviewed Monday. AP
Updated 17 April 2018
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Inspectors’ access to gas attack site blocked due to ‘security concerns’

  • The OPCW received the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to eliminate chemical weapons in 2013
  • The targeted sites were largely empty, and were all said to be facilities for chemical weapons storage or production

THE HAGUE: Russia and Syria have stalled access to Douma by international experts seeking to probe an alleged poison gas attack there, citing security concerns, a British diplomat said Monday.
The claim came as the global chemical arms watchdog held emergency talks on the alleged atrocity, which prompted Western air strikes on Syria on Saturday.
The head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Uzumcu, told the closed-door meeting his inspectors had failed to gain access to the site so far, the British ambassador to the Netherlands told reporters.
Uzumcu said “the Syrian regime and the Russians were citing security concerns,” Ambassador Peter Wilson told a press conference.
The Russians and Syrians “have not been able to guarantee the security of the delegation to go to Douma at this point,” Wilson added, saying no timeline had been given for when they could visit.
The talks at the OPCW’s headquarters come two days after a wave of punitive missile strikes in Syria launched by Western powers after the alleged April 7 toxic arms attack on Douma.
The team had been expected to begin their field work on Sunday, but they met with officials at their Damascus hotel instead and a strict media blackout was imposed on their schedule.
The Kremlin dismissed claims that Russia was impeding access.
“We consider such accusations against Russia to be groundless,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, adding that Moscow was in favor of “an impartial investigation.”
The missiles that US, French and British warships fired on suspected chemical facilities Saturday constituted the biggest Western attack against the regime in the seven-year war.
The targeted sites were largely empty, and were all said to be facilities for chemical weapons storage or production.
In the Syrian capital, thousands of people gathered on the main Umayyad Square to express their support for President Bashar Assad in the aftermath of the missile strikes.
But at the OPCW, France urged nations to boost the organization’s work so it can dismantle Syria’s “secret” toxic weapons program.
Following recent alleged attacks, “we all know, Syria has maintained a secret chemical program since 2013,” French Ambassador Philippe Lalliot said.
“The facts are there, and they defy the most obscene lies and the most absurd denials,” he said.
He added that priority must be given to helping the OPCW “complete the dismantling of the Syrian program.”
The limited scope of the weekend strikes and the fact that Damascus had time to remove key assets thanks to prior warning given by the West to the Syrian regime’s ally Russia, have drawn scepticism however.
The trio of Western powers that carried out the strikes warned they would repeat the operation if Damascus used chemical weapons again, while Putin warned any fresh strikes would “provoke chaos.”
With no further strikes planned for the time being, the West already appears to be shifting its focus to renewed diplomatic action, with a new resolution to be debated at the UN Security Council on Monday.
“The bottom line for me is that this latest strike changed nothing,” said Nabeel Khoury, a former US diplomat and currently a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Key points: What is the OPCW mission in Douma ?
BEIRUT: Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have launched their investigation into an alleged chemical attack near Damascus on April 7.
What exactly is the fact-finding team’s mission, what will it be looking for, how independently will it be able to perform its duties and how significant will its findings be?
Here are some facts on the OPCW’s Syria mission:
The organization is based in The Hague, in the Netherlands. It is the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997 and aims to eradicate chemical weapons worldwide.
The OPCW’s fact-finding mission (FFM) was set up in 2014 “to establish facts surrounding allegations of the use of toxic chemicals, reportedly chlorine, for hostile purposes in the Syrian Arab Republic.”
The OPCW received the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to eliminate chemical weapons in 2013 as it pressed a campaign that resulted the following year in the destruction of Syria’s declared stockpiles.
The FFM arrived in Damascus on Saturday to investigate allegations chemical weapons were used in a strike on the town of Douma, just east of Damascus, on April 7.
Local medics said more than 40 people died as a result of the alleged chemical weapons attack, which most experts so far have speculated involved chlorine and another agent such as sarin.
Western powers accused the Syrian regime of conducting the strike and responded on April 14 with an unprecedented wave of missile strikes.
The OPCW team has so far held meetings with Syrian officials but is not believed to have started field work in Douma, where holdout rebels surrendered their weapons and agreed to leave after the alleged attack.
Its mission, which was requested by the Syrian government, is to determine whether chemical weapons were used but not who the perpetrator was.
The team “may take chemical, environmental and biomedical samples for analysis,” the OPCW says. “Team members may also interview victims, eyewitnesses and medical personnel and participate in autopsies.”
“There is no silver bullet — in most cases, no single piece of evidence will be sufficient,” said Ralf Trapp, a consultant and member of a previous FFM mission.
“UN as ​well as OPCW investigation teams rely on the advice and support of the UN Department of Safety and Security ​and their contacts with local actors,” Trapp explained.
During their investigative work, the FFM teams are escorted by Syrian government officials.
Douma was held by rebel groups for six years and has been extensively damaged by the assault the regime launched on Feb. 18. The army said mine clearing operations were currently under way.
Russia and the regime have both denied chemical weapons were used. Their forces have controlled the area where the attack occurred for days.
“Investigators will look for evidence that shows whether the incident site has been tampered with​,” Trapp said, adding that they will also have to find ways of authenticating evidence that it presented to by third parties.


Mourners pay tribute at funeral of Vietnam’s late president

Updated 2 min 24 sec ago
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Mourners pay tribute at funeral of Vietnam’s late president

  • ‘I think Vietnamese people from ordinary people have great respect for him’
  • ‘His passing is a great loss to the state, family and his comrades in arms’
HANOI, Vietnam: Vietnam’s late President Tran Dai Quang was mourned as a great loss and praised for his contributions to his country at his funeral Wednesday.
Long lines of family members, officials including General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, police and soldiers streamed through the National Funeral House in downtown Hanoi. Some wept as they passed his flag-draped coffin.
“He devoted his whole life and made numerous contributions to the country’s glorious revolutionary cause ... His passing is a great loss to our Party, State and people,” Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binh said in a prayer ceremony broadcast live on state television.
Quang died Friday at age 61. A government doctor said he had battled a rare viral illness for more than a year but did not reveal the virus.
“I think Vietnamese people from ordinary people have great respect for him,” retired teacher Nguyen Thi Huan, 64, said outside the funeral house. “Some people felt like they lost their loved ones when they learnt of his passing.”
For retired police colonel Tran Duc Thang who had known Quang for 38 years, Quang was an “affectional comrade in arms.”
“His passing is a great loss to the state, family and his comrades in arms,” he said after paying tribute to Quang. “I hope he will rest in peace and wish that he from his world will continue to bless and support the country’s development.”
He will be buried in his home village in northern Ninh Binh province Thursday.
Flags fly at half-staff and all entertainment activities are canceled during the two-day national mourning.
A career security officer, Quang rose through the ranks to be minister of public security in 2011 and was elected by the National Assembly as the nation’s president in April 2016.
Vice President Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh has been named acting president, the country’s first woman to hold that position. No date has been given for the election of a new president.
The country’s other top leaders are Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and chairwoman of the National Assembly Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan. Analysts say Quang’s death is unlikely to shake up the Communist country’s politics, which are led collectively.