Wednesday, April 25News That Matters

US Says Russia May Have Tampered With Chemical Attack Site


Britain's ambassador to the Netherlands and permanent representative to the chemical weapons watchdog OPCW, Peter Wilson, right, talks to an embassy employee after a press conference in The Hague, Netherlands.
Britain’s ambassador to the Netherlands and permanent representative to the chemical weapons watchdog OPCW, Peter Wilson, right, talks to an embassy employee after a press conference in The Hague, Netherlands.
Photo:

MICHAEL KOOREN/PRESS POOL
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The U.S. said it was concerned Russian officials may have tampered with the site of an alleged chemical attack in Syria before investigators could reach the area.

Western governments called on Russia and Syria to give unfettered access to

Douma,

the site of the alleged attack. The U.K. reported that investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons hadn’t yet been allowed access to the site.

The OPCW, the world’s chemical-weapons watchdog, was meeting in The Hague, Netherlands, on Monday to discuss the investigation, a gathering that comes two days after the U.S., U.K. and France staged military strikes on what they said were three chemical-weapons research and production facilities in Syria.

The strikes have ramped up tensions between Russia and the West, which accuses Moscow of failing to stop the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on its people. The attack in Douma killed at least 43 civilians and injured hundreds.

In remarks at the meeting,

Kenneth Ward,

the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, said “it is our understanding” that Russians may have visited the site of the attack.

“We are concerned they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission to conduct an effective investigation,” Mr. Ward said.

Russia didn’t immediately respond to the U.S. comments. Russia’s U.N. Ambassador

Vassily Nebenzia

told the Security Council last week that Russian investigators had visited the site of the attack and interviewed medical staff and residents.

Russia has maintained that its investigators found no evidence of a chemical-weapons attack in Douma and that opposition fighters aligned with the West staged the attack as a pretext for a strike on Syria.

OPCW Director-General

Ahmet

Üzümcü said that chemical weapons inspectors hadn’t been able to access to the site. Mr. Üzümcü said Syrian and Russian officials told the OPCW fact-finding mission “there were still pending security issues” to be resolved before the team could go to Douma. Syrian authorities, the OPCW said, had allowed the investigators to interview 22 witnesses who had been brought to Damascus.

A senior Russian diplomat said the OPCW needed the permission of the U.N.’s department for safety and security before they could travel to the site. 

“Everything comes down to the lack of agreement from the U.N. secretariat’s department for the OPCW experts to travel to Douma, where the events took place,” said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister

Sergei Ryabkov.

U.N. spokesman

Stephane Dujarric

said Monday the U.N. had provided all necessary clearances for OPCW investigators to conduct their fact-finding mission in Douma. He added that negotiations for access to the area were being conducted at a local level in Syria.

“The U.N. is providing all the logistical and other support it can to make sure the mission goes forward,” said Mr. Dujarric. “We hope it’s as complete and full as possible.”

On Saturday, both the Russian and Syrian U.N. ambassadors told the Security Council that they would provide full access and safe passage to OPCW investigators. Mr. Nebenzia told reporters Saturday that Russian military police were present in Douma to offer security and ensure access for investigators.

Syria’s Foreign Minister

Fayssal Mikdad

said his government was ready to cooperate with the OPCW and that several meetings had been held with the investigators to discuss “implementing the required task precisely, transparently and impartiality,” according to Syrian state media. He said nothing about why the investigators hadn’t yet reached Douma.

The OPCW was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for its role to try to strip Syria of its chemical weapons. As relations between Russia and the West have soured, Moscow has sought to stop the U.N. and OPCW from assigning responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Last year, Russia vetoed the renewal of a joint U.N.-OCPW mission to identify those responsible for such attacks.

After discussing Syria on Monday, European Union foreign ministers threatened further sanctions against Syrian officials and scientists involved in chemical weapons development and repression of civilians.

—Thomas Grove, Raja Abdulrahim and

Laurence Norman

contributed to this article.

Write to Julian E. Barnes at julian.barnes@wsj.com and Farnaz Fassihi at farnaz.fassihi@wsj.com

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