Watchdog to vote on Moscow bid for new Syria attack probe

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THE HAGUE: The governing body of the global chemical arms watchdog will Thursday vote on a controversial Russian-Iranian move to set up a new team to probe a suspected chemical attack in Syria, sources told Agence France-Presse.

The draft decision, seen by Agence France-Presse, calls for an investigation “to establish whether chemical weapons were used in Khan Sheikhun and how they were delivered to the site of the reported incident”—even though a probe is already underway.

It also calls for investigators to visit the Shayrat airbase—bombed by the United States after the April 4 attack—to “verify allegations concerning the storage of chemical weapons” there.

The move comes as the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Wednesday “incontrovertible” test results by the OPCW team already probing the incident had shown sarin gas or a similar substance were used in the April 4 attack.

Samples from three people killed in the attack and seven survivors analysed at four OPCW-designated laboratories “indicate exposure to sarin or a sarin-like substance,” said OPCW director general Ahmet Uzumcu.

Western nations have accused the Syrian regime of carrying out the suspected air strike on the rebel-held town in Idlib province which killed at least 87 people, including many children.

But Moscow, the closest ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is leading efforts to sideline the OPCW’s existing fact-finding mission by calling for a new “full-scale and thorough investigation.”

The move has raised hackles at the OPCW executive council meeting this week in The Hague, where nations have lined up to voice support for the existing fact-finding team.

The team “deserves our full confidence,” the Belgian representative to the OPCW told the meeting on Wednesday.

“We don’t see the need to put in place a new structure.”

The draft decision, due to be voted on by the council later Thursday, also calls for member states to “provide national experts for participation in the investigation.”

Such a move would be against the convention against chemical weapons “as it is the role of the OPCW to lead independently any investigation,” one source close to the discussions told Agence France-Presse.

Russia last week vetoed a UN draft resolution condemning the attack and demanding the Syrian government cooperate with an investigation, blocking Security Council action against its ally for an eighth time.

After Moscow initially said a Syrian air strike had struck a “terrorist warehouse” containing “toxic substances,” Russian President Vladimir Putin last week accused Assad’s opponents of planning to stage chemical attacks to lure Washington deeper into the conflict.

On Friday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized the OPCW for not sending experts to the attack site, saying it was “unacceptable to analyze events from a distance”.

But Uzumcu vowed Wednesday an OPCW team was ready to head to the town “should the security situation so permit. I am told that this would require a 48-hour ceasefire and safe passage for the team to be arranged.” AFP

AFP/CC

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