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Syrian conflict

Watchdog inspectors arrive in Syrian town Douma after alleged chemical attack killed dozens

The OPCW fact-finding mission collected samples to be tested before deciding the next steps, the body says

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 April, 2018, 11:41pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2018, 8:32am

Inspectors from the world’s chemical arms watchdog arrived Saturday in the Syrian town of Douma, where an alleged chemical attack took place earlier this month, the Russian foreign ministry said. 

A team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have been in Syria for a week but had not travelled to the city because of security fears.

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“According to the information we have, the special OPCW mission … arrived on the morning of April 21 in the city of Douma at the sites suspected of having toxic substances,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The security of the OPCW has been guaranteed not only by the Syrian side but also by the Russian command in Syria.”

The inspectors took samples in the Syrian town, the body said.

A fact-finding mission from the OPCW visited Douma “today to collect samples for analysis in connection with allegations of chemical weapons use on 7 April 2018. The OPCW will evaluate the situation and consider future steps including another possible visit to Douma,” the organisation said in a statement.

The samples will be transported to Rijswijk in the Netherlands before being sent for analysis to the group’s designated laboratories, The Hague-based OPCW said in an emailed statement. “Based on the analysis of the sample results, as well other information and materials collected by the team, the fact-finding mission will compile their report for submission to the states parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention for their consideration.”

Dozens were killed in the alleged gas attack in Douma, near Damascus, on April 7, blamed by some on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, emergency workers claim.

The Syrian government has consistently denied using chemical arms and invited the OPCW to investigate. 

The Russian ministry said it expects the OPCW to carry out an “impartial investigation”.

“Especially since this is the first visit to the scene of a suspected chemical incident in the history of the so-called Syrian chemical record,” it said.

The nine-person team’s mandate is to determine if a chemical attack took place and what chemical agent was used.

In Douma, the experts will have to gather biological samples from victims, both survivors and fatalities, as well as environmental evidence, said George Famini, a former US government official and now chemical safety consultant with 35 years in chemical defence and security. 

Gathering environmental evidence will be especially complicated, Famini said.  

Both agents believed to be used in the attack degrade over time, making tests for the actual agent difficult, he said.

Additional reporting by Associated Press, Bloomberg