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Syrian conflict

UN security attacked with guns and explosives in Douma as chemical weapons experts say they’ll only fly in if given ‘unhindered access’

The team had been sent to check the area before members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived to investigate a suspected chemical attack

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 1:36am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 4:03am

A UN security team sent to clear the way for chemical weapons experts was attacked on Tuesday with guns and explosives on in the Syrian town of Douma, it has emerged.

The team had been sent to check the area before staff from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were flown in to investigate the suspected chemical attack in the town that occurred April 7.

The security team was not injured and returned to Damascus, OPCW Chief Ahmet Uzumcu said on Wednesday – but he warned that investigators would not be flown in until the area was confirmed to be safe. 

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And even if the security of the area is confirmed by the UN team, the experts will only be deployed “provided that our team can have unhindered access to the sites”, he said.

“At present, we do not know when the team can be deployed to Douma,” he added.

According to Uzumcu, A UN security team “on arrival at Site 1” was met by a large crowd and were advised to withdraw, while “At Site 2, the team came under small arms fire and an explosive was detonated”.

Uzumcu said the UN will continue to work with Syrian authorities, local councils in Douma and the Russian military police “to review the situation”.

He added the sites the team wants to visit were under the control of the Russian military police, and that the intention had been for he Syrians to escort them to a certain point, and then hand them over to the Russian military police for further escort.

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US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis blamed the Syrian government for delays in inspectors reaching the sites and said it has a history of trying to “clean up the evidence before the investigation team gets in”. 

“We are very much aware of the delay that the regime imposed on that delegation but we are also very much aware of how they have operated in the past and seal what they have done using chemical weapons,” Mattis said before the start of a meeting with his counterpart from Qatar.

But an official close to the Syrian government told Reuters that the UN security team had been met by protesters demonstrating against the US-led strikes, calling it “a message from the people” and promising that the mission “will continue its work”.

The suspected April 7 gas attack on Douma, near Damascus, reportedly left more than 40 people dead and was blamed by Western powers on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The inspectors arrived in Damascus on Saturday, the same day that Britain, France and the United States launched military strikes against what they said were targets linked to Syria’s chemical weapons programme.

A UN official, who declined to be named, said the security team would remain in Damascus with OPCW experts for the time being.

Syria’s UN Ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, told the Security Council on Tuesday that the OPCW experts would begin their investigation once they received the all-clear from the UN security team.

“If this United Nations security team decides that the situation is sound in Douma then the fact-finding mission will begin its work in Douma tomorrow,” Jaafari said.

The ambassador stressed that the “Syrian government did all that it can do to facilitate the work of this mission” but that it was up to the United Nations and the OPCW to decide whether to deploy, based on security considerations.

Additional reporting by Reuters.