April 14, 2018 / 9:36 AM / 5 days ago

Weapons inspectors plan to head to Syria's Douma hours after strikes

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Weapons inspectors will try on Saturday to reach the site of a suspected poison attack in the Syrian town of Douma, hours after Western countries launched air strikes in retaliation over the gassing.

The OPCW’s fact-finding mission “will continue its deployment to the Syrian Arab Republic to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma”, the agency said in a statement.

The United States, Britain and France fired more than 100 missiles at Syria early on Saturday in the first coordinated Western military intervention against the Damascus government. They say the strikes are punishment for killing dozens of people, many of them women and children, with banned toxic munitions.

Damascus and its ally Russia have denounced the Western action, in particular for refusing to wait until the results of the fact-finding mission sent by the OPCW in the wake of the April 7 incident.

Rescue workers said scores of people died in that incident. Washington says it has confirmed that chlorine gas was used, and has unconfirmed suspicion that nerve agents may also have been used. Damascus and Moscow deny blame for any such attack.

Security permitting, a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons will deploy briefly on Saturday to the site.

The team will work with the United Nations Department of Safety and Security ensure the safety of the team, it said.

Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons arsenal in 2013 and submit to OPCW inspections. It is meant to have destroyed all of its stockpiles of nerve agents. In the case of chlorine, it is permitted to possess it for civilian use, but not to use it as a weapon.

The OPCW will determine whether chemical weapons were used, but will not assign blame.

Despite a U.S.-Russian agreement to completely eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program after hundreds of people were gassed with sarin in Ghouta on Aug. 21, 2013, the OPCW had been unable to verify that all manufacturing, storage and research facilities were destroyed.

Among the sites reportedly hit overnight Friday was the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, a facility that has played a key role in Syria’s chemical weapons program since the 1970s.

OPCW inspectors have raised questions about the SSRC since 2013, when Damascus joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention and agreed to do away with its stockpile to avert threatened strikes under President Barack Obama.

Syria has been unable to explain several findings by inspectors, including undeclared research and development sites, the presence of banned chemicals and missing munitions, sources have told Reuters.

Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Peter Graff

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