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Russians blocked chemical site inspectors: May

Protesters outside Parliament
Protesters outside Parliament
Prime Minister Theresa May in the House of Commons yesterday
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons yesterday

By David Hughes

Theresa May has accused Russia of preventing international inspectors from reaching the site of the Syrian chemical weapons attack as relations with Moscow deteriorated further.

A diplomatic storm erupted as the Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Syrian and Russian officials had claimed there were "security issues" which prevented a fact-finding mission from reaching Douma, where around 75 people are thought to have died in the attack.

Russia suggested the missile strikes launched by the UK, US and France were part of the reason why the chemical weapons watchdog could not travel to the scene of the attack.

It strongly denied interfering with the work of inspectors attempting to reach the site of the atrocity which the UK and Western allies have concluded was perpetrated by the regime of Moscow's ally Bashar Assad.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said relations between Moscow and the West were worse than at the time of the Cold War.

He said the UK, Nato and European Union had closed the normal channels of communication with Russia which provided safeguards against confrontation.

"I think it is worse, because during the Cold War there were channels of communication and there was no obsession with Russophobia, which looks like genocide by sanctions," he told the BBC.

Russian officials at the OPCW said later that arrangements were being made for inspectors to visit Douma tomorrow.

However, updating MPs on the military action, the Prime Minister said it would not have been worth waiting for their findings because Russian vetoes at the United Nations meant no blame could be apportioned for the attack.

"Even if the OPCW team is able to visit Douma to gather information to make that assessment - and they are currently being prevented from doing so by the regime and the Russians - it cannot attribute responsibility," she said.

Mrs May accused Russia and Syria of attempting to cover up the attack.

"The Syrian regime has reportedly been attempting to conceal the evidence by searching evacuees from Douma to ensure samples are not being smuggled from this area and a wider operation to conceal the facts of the attack is under way, supported by the Russians," she told MPs.

At a meeting of the OPCW in The Hague, director-general Ahmet Uzumcu said the organisation's team had arrived in Damascus on Saturday but "has not yet deployed to Douma".

"The Syrian and the Russian officials who participated in the preparatory meetings in Damascus have informed the FFM (fact-finding mission) team that there were still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place," the director-general added.

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