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.


Bane of Pakistani politicians: young voters with smartphones

Updated 1 min 33 sec ago
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Bane of Pakistani politicians: young voters with smartphones

ISLAMABAD: The crowd of young Pakistanis, many armed with smartphones, surround the politician’s car and begin streaming live footage of something extraordinary: angry voters asking their elected representatives what they have done for them lately.
A titanic 46 million people below the age of 35 are registered to vote in nationwide elections on July 25 — many of them savvy social media users who are posting videos calling out the powerful.
In one clip, influential politician, landowner and tribal chief Sikandar Hayat Khan Bosan is filmed in his car in the central city of Multan surrounded by young men chanting “thief” and “turncoat.”
“Where were you during the last five years?” they ask Bosan, complaining over the poor state of roads in the area. An aide can be heard pleading that the leader is feeling unwell.
To be held accountable in such a public manner is virtually unheard of for most Pakistani politicians, especially in rural areas where many of the videos have been filmed.
There feudal landowners, village elders and religious leaders have for decades been elected unopposed. Many are known to use their power over residents to bend them to their will.
Dubbed the “electables,” these politicians command huge vote banks. Most also take a flexible approach to ideology, and are highly courted by political parties, who view winning their allegiance as a passport to power.
But videos like the one of Bosan have gone viral in the weeks leading up to the polls, shared thousands of times in a country of some 207 million people, of whom roughly a quarter use 3G and 4G Internet, according to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority.
They have also made their way on to Pakistan’s numerous and raucous television channels, ensuring they are also broadcast to audiences without access to social media.
Analysts are watching closely to see whether these rare moments of accountability might disrupt the way the major political parties have long relied on rural politicians and their huge vote banks as a shortcut to power.

The videos’ popularity is a sign of simmering resentment against corrupt politicians among Pakistan’s youth, says Sarwar Bari, an analyst at the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), a democratic watchdog.
Historically apathetic, young Pakistanis first emerged as a political force in the 2013 elections, when a generation who grew up idolising cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan voted for his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party in droves.
Under-35s represent a massive proportion of the total electorate of 106 million voters registered in the 2018 elections.
More than 17 million are in the 18-25 age bracket, with a huge chunk set to cast their ballot for the first time.
The Asia Foundation noted in a recent report that many young people are increasingly engaged in the democratic process, particularly through the widespread use of social media.
If so, and as concerns over election rigging mount ahead of the vote, the impact of uncensored content such as the viral videos could become significant, analysts say.
“Social media has emerged as a democracy strengthening tool,” says Shahzad Ahmed, director of Bytes for All, a digital rights group.
Bari, who predicts election turnout will be “massive,” says if even half of the young voters who have seen and shared such videos go to the polls “it will strengthen the trust of the people in the democratic system.”
Pakistanis only started to recieve high-speed mobile data in 2014 and its use has spread at one of the highest rates in Asia.
Access for young people to social media is helping to create a more democratic and participatory form of government, argues Maham Khan, a 21-year-old student of international relations at the Quaid-i-Azam university in Islamabad.
She references protests in Cairo in 2011 which were organized via social media and eventually unseated the then-president Hosni Mubarak.
“Basically the youth is actually using social media just like in Egypt, to bring about slow social revolution,” she says.
But who they will vote for is hard to predict, with vast socioeconomic, religious and ideological differences between this huge population — though jobs and education are among their most unifying demands.
Polls still broadly indicate youth support for PTI and Khan’s populist, reformist agenda, though the shine may have gone off the sportsman somewhat — one of the viral videos shows him being whisked away by aides as a similar crowd challenges him in Karachi.
Nevertheless, most students who spoke to AFP expressed hope for change after decades of corrupt political dynasties, and Khan — despite widespread claims he is being backed by the powerful military as they seek a pliant government — represents the best chance of that.
“As a first time voter myself... I’m very excited and I want to be a part of this process through which my vote can bring change,” 23-year-old Rafey Khan Jaboon told AFP.