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.


Riyadh film-lovers get ready for ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ release in the Kingdom

Updated 35 sec ago
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Riyadh film-lovers get ready for ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ release in the Kingdom

Noor Nugali RIYADH: Once more a Marvel movie will open to the Saudi public at the new AMC cinema in Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District.
Only this time, it is a new release.
“Avengers: Infinity War” is expected to set box-office records when it opens in movie theaters around the world on Thursday, and Saudi Arabia will be a participant in this worldwide phenomenon.
It is the first new release to be screened in a public cinema in 35 years; on April 18, Marvel’s “Black Panther” made history as the first movie to open in the new cinema.
Three screenings of the movie Avengers will take place during the weekend for the public: at 12.20pm, 3.40 p.m. and 8.20 pm.
Tickets can be bought online at https://cinema.noon.com/en-sa/avengers for 75SR.
They are selling out pretty quick, so get yours while they last.