April 18, 2018 / 11:13 AM / 3 months ago

Syrian rescuers give OPCW team locations of suspected attack graves

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian “White Helmets” rescue organisation has pinpointed for international inspectors the places where the victims of the suspected chemical weapons attack on April 7 are buried, its head Raed Saleh said on Wednesday.

The United Nation vehicle carrying the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors is seen in Damascus, Syria April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Reports of the attack prompted Western air strikes against Syria on Saturday, but the Syrian government backed by its close ally Russia denies either using or possessing such weapons.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) sent a team to Syria at the weekend, but it has not yet been able to visit Douma and examine the site of the alleged attack.

“We have handed to the fact-finding mission of the OPCW all the information we gathered about the chemical attack, including the exact burial place of the victims,” Saleh, who is based in Turkey, told Reuters via a messaging service.

The suspected chemical attack killed dozens of people in Douma, medical relief organisations say. Jaish al-Islam, which controlled the town, agreed to withdraw soon afterwards, attributing the decision to the attack.

The OPCW team will seek evidence from soil samples, interviews with witnesses, blood, urine or tissue samples from victims and weapon parts. But, more than a week after the suspected attack, hard evidence might be hard to trace.

Douma hospital workers who stayed in the town after the army recaptured it have said that none of the people injured on the night of the attack were exposed to chemical weapons.

Medical charities operating in opposition-held parts of Syria have dismissed those statements as propaganda given under duress.

EVIDENCE

A visit by international chemical weapons inspectors to the location of one suspected gas attack in Douma was delayed after gunfire at the site during a visit by a U.N. security team on Tuesday, sources told Reuters.

One source told Reuters the advance team had “encountered a security issue” including gunfire which led to the delay, but could not provide additional details. Another said they had been met by protesters demanding aid, and gunfire was heard. The U.N. then left.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador said the fact-finding mission would begin its work in Douma on Wednesday if the U.N. security team deemed the situation there safe.

The United States has accused Russia of blocking the inspectors from reaching the site of the suspected attacks in Syria and say Russians or Syrians may have tampered with evidence on the ground.

Moscow denies this and blamed delays on the retaliatory U.S.-led missile strikes on Syria at the weekend.

Saleh said bodies had been buried quickly because of heavy bombardment and the location of graves was kept secret to prevent any doctoring of evidence.

Saleh said the situation in the battered eastern Ghouta city had been catastrophic since the day before the attack due to continuous bombardment, meaning they had had no time to identify victims in a proper way and document their deaths.

“The priority was to bury the dead as soon as possible,” he said.

Reporting by Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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