US State Department Claims Inspectors Not in Douma
By VOA News April 17, 2018
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 U.S. State Department spokeswoman contradicted those reports on Tuesday afternoon. "Our understanding is that the team has not entered Douma," Heather Nauert said.
Investigators from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had arrived in Syria on Saturday, the day that the U.S., Britain and France launched missiles targeting Syrian chemical weapons facilities. But the inspectors had not initially been allowed to go to Douma, near Damascus, to try to verify the nature of the suspected gas attack on April 7.
With the 10-day delay since the attack, the French foreign ministry said, "It is highly likely that evidence and essential elements disappear from the site, which is completely controlled by the Russian and Syrian armies."
Ken Ward, the U.S. ambassador to the chemical weapons watchdog, claimed Monday that the Russians had already visited the site and "may have tampered with it," which Moscow rejected.
In the hours immediately after the missile strike, U.S. President Donald Trump basked in its success:
But on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron adopted a more nuanced view of the attack.
"Three countries have intervened, and let me be quite frank, quite honest – this is for the honor of the international community," he said in Strasbourg, France. "These strikes don't necessarily resolve anything, but I think they were important."
U.S. military officials have said the strikes were designed to send a powerful message to Syria and its backers, showing the U.S., Britain and France could slice through the nation's air defense systems at will.
"We did what we believe was right under international law," U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon.
"I hope that this time the Assad regime got the message," he added.
The U.S. State Department had accused Russia of trying to block the inspectors from investigating the attack in Douma "by making it more complicated" for the specialists to do their work.
"They probably want to do that because they recognize that the longer that a site goes untested, the more that the elements, the chemicals, can start to disappear," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told Alhurra television.
Russia had blamed the delays on the U.S., French and British missile strikes. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also said the mission was not allowed in because it lacked approval from the U.N. Department for Safety and Security. U.N. officials in New York disputed the claim.
Russia and Syria say no chemical attack occurred at Douma.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that evidence cited by the United States, Britain and France to justify Saturday's missile attack was based "on media reports and social media." He denied any chemical weapons attack had occurred, accusing Britain of staging the attack.
The U.S. and its allies blame the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for the chemical weapons attack.
Syrian media reported another missile attack early Thursday in Homs province, but later said it was a false alarm and not an outside attack that triggered air defense systems.
Meanwhile, State Department spokesperson Nauert told Alhurra the United States was pushing for a renewed focus on the so-called Geneva process, which the United Nations began in 2012 as a road map for ending the seven-year Syrian conflict with a new constitution and elections.
"The only thing that I can hope that is positive that came out of the terrible news in Syria last week is to reinvigorate that political process," she said. "So, it is our hope now that countries will go back to the Geneva process and we'll be able to make some progress there."
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini made a similar call Monday ahead of a ministerial meeting, saying there was a clear need to push for relaunching the U.N.-led peace process.
VOA's Margaret Besheer at the United Nations and Jeff Seldin at the Pentagon contributed to this report.
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