Chemical weapons experts not in Douma, State Department says

Russia denies it is blocking access to site

By ANGELA DEWAN, HAMDI ALKHSHALI AND MILENA VESELINOVIC, CNN
Copyright 2018 CNN

Several Syrian activist groups say dozens of civilians are dead and hundreds wounded after an attack on the city of Douma in Eastern Ghouta.

(CNN) - There was confusion Tuesday whether a team of international experts had arrived in the Syrian city of Douma to determine whether chemical weapons were used in an attack there 10 days ago.

Syrian state TV and the White Helmets volunteer rescue group said separately that a fact-finding team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had come to Douma.

But a US State Department spokeswoman contradicted those reports on Tuesday afternoon. "Our understanding is that the team has not entered Douma," Heather Nauert said.

The OPCW would not comment to CNN on whether its experts were in Douma.

The OPCW team has been in Syria since Saturday, but Russia and Syria had denied it access to Douma, Peter Wilson, the UK envoy to the chemical weapons watchdog group, said Monday. Russia has repeatedly denied the accusation.

The team did eventually visit the area, White Helmets member Ammar Al-Selmo said Tuesday.

The team is tasked with assessing whether banned chemical substances were used in the April 7 attack. Senior US officials have said their assessments show both chlorine and sarin gas were used. Russia has denied a chemical attack took place at all, saying it was faked.

There are concerns now that enough time has passed to allow for a cleanup of the site or to hide evidence of chemical weapons use.

The US envoy to the watchdog group expressed concern of Russian tampering, warning that the delay in getting to Douma may have compromised the international team's ability to assess the area accurately.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed those concerns, giving his guarantee in an interview with the BBC that there had been no such Russian tampering. He said last week, however, that Russian experts had gone to the site in Douma and found "no trace" of chemical weapons use.

Russia has been in a war of words with Western leaders since the attack, which left dozens of people dead.

The United States, Britain and France blamed the incident on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and responded with airstrikes on Syrian sites over the weekend. Russia is Assad's most powerful ally and has helped turn the tide of the Syrian war in his favor.

The Douma attack has heightened tensions between Russia and Western leaders, already at loggerheads over a number of issues, including the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter in the UK. British Prime Minister Theresa May blamed Russia for the attack, and more than 20 countries collectively expelled more than 100 Russian diplomats to show solidarity with Britain over the case. Russia has denied involvement in the poisoning.

Russia sanctions on ice

The Kremlin has been deflecting accusations from the West since the Douma strike, and has fired back several of its own at the United States and the UK. Russian officials accused UK intelligence services of helping stage the suspected chemical attack, which the UK has strongly denied.

Russia's representative to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Alexander Shulgin, accused the White Helmets rescue group of faking a chemical attack, pointing to US funding of the group as part of the problem. The White Helmets have denied fabricating attacks.

In Washington, the White House appeared to be backpedaling on plans to impose new sanctions on Russia.

On Sunday, Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations, told CBS the Trump administration would announce more sanctions against Russia as soon as Monday, adding that Washington had to send "a strong message" about the use of chemical weapons. She said sanctions would be placed on companies dealing with equipment related to Assad and chemical weapons use.

But Monday passed with no announcement, and a Washington Post report said Trump had yet to sign off on the move. The report cited sources close to the matter as saying Trump was not yet comfortable with additional sanctions.

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