A senior Russian diplomat has said inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog cannot access the site of an alleged chemical attack near the Syrian capital without an appropriate UN permit.
Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov’s remarks could indicate a possible attempt to bog down the team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), though both Russia and the Syrian government have welcomed the visit in the wake of the West’s air strikes in Syria over the weekend.
Mr Ryabkov told reporters in Moscow that what is hampering a swift resolution of the mission’s visit to the Syrian town of Douma, near Damascus, the site of the alleged chemical attack, is “the consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action”, a reference to Saturday’s punitive air strikes.
A team from the OPCW arrived in Syria shortly before the air strikes. It has met with Syrian officials but has not visited the town at the centre of the controversy.
Government forces and Russian troops have deployed in Douma, which has now fallen under the control of the Syrian government.
“It is the lack of approval by the UN Department for Safety and Security for OPCW experts to visit the site in Douma that is the problem,” Mr Ryabkov told reporters, adding that he checked just a short while ago on was delaying their visit.
Russia said it is not curtailing the mission’s visit, and appears instead to be blaming the international organisation for the delay.
Syrian opposition and activists have criticised the Russian deployment in the town, saying that evidence of chemical weapons’ use might no longer be found. Russia and Syria deny the attack took place.
The Kremlin quickly denied reports that Russia was not allowing the OPCW mission in, without elaborating.
Mr Ryabkov said: “As far as I understand what is hampering a speedy resolution of this problem is the consequences of the illegal, unlawful military action that Great Britain and other countries conducted on Saturday.”
The OPCW is holding an emergency meeting in The Hague to discuss the suspected chemical attack in Douma.
At least 40 people are believed to have died in the attack on Douma, until the weekend the last rebel-held town outside the Syrian capital. The OPCW fact-finding team dispatched to Syria to investigate does not have a mandate to assign blame.
Meanwhile, Nato’s secretary general said the weekend’s US-led strikes will reduce the Syrian government’s capabilities of carrying out new chemical attacks.
Jens Stoltenberg said the strikes were a “clear message” to Syrian president Bashar Assad, to Russia and Iran that the use of chemical weapons is not acceptable and that the allies would not stand by and watch. Mr Stoltenberg spoke in an interview with Turkey’s NTV television on Monday.
In Damascus, hundreds of Syrians gathered in a landmark square Damascus, rallying in support of their armed forces, which they say succeeded in confronting the unprecedented air strikes by the West.
Protesters in Omayyad Square waved Syrian flags at the demonstration, dubbed a “salute to the achievements of the Arab Syrian Army,” set off fireworks and unleashed celebratory gunfire.