Watchdog confirms chlorine was used in Syria attack that Russia tried to cover up
THE HAGUE, the Netherlands -- The world's chemical weapons watchdog last week said that chlorine was used against the rebel-held town of Douma, Syria, in 2018, in a long-awaited final report on the deadly attack.
The report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was based on a visit by inspectors to the site of the massacre, which witnesses said killed 43 people.
Most of the international community blamed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the incident and unleashed air strikes on military installations in response.
Russia, which backs Assad and has attempted to help cover up such attacks, rejected the OPCW report and said the atrocity was "staged" by Syrian rescue volunteers, known as "White Helmets".
The Hague-based agency said two cylinders likely containing chlorine smashed into a housing block in the town.
There were "reasonable grounds [to conclude] that the use of a toxic chemical as a weapon has taken place on 7 April 2018," the OPCW said in the report. "This toxic chemical contained reactive chlorine."
The report added that the OPCW found no evidence of the use of nerve agents in Douma, which had been previously alleged by some parties in the conflict.
The findings confirmed an interim OPCW report released last July saying that traces of chlorine were found.
The report does not place blame because it was not in the OPCW's remit at the time, although the group has since acquired powers to investigate responsibility for all chemical attacks in Syria back to 2014.
Moscow has consistently tried to impede investigations of chemical weapon use, while attempting to shift blame and spread disinformation. In November, Russia failed in its bid to stall the OPCW's new power to apportion blame for war crimes by calling for a vote on the organisation's 2019 budget.
In response to the new OPCW report, Moscow again sought to obscure any role of Damascus in the slaughter of its own people.
The "Douma incident is no more than a 'White Helmets' staged provocation", the Russian Embassy in The Hague tweeted.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Syria should now honour its 2013 vow to destroy all its chemical weapons, made after 1,400 people were killed in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta by what the United Nations (UN) said was the nerve agent sarin.
"Confirmed today by @OPCW -- chemical weapons WERE used in Douma, Syria in April 2018. The Assad regime must cease, declare and destroy its chemical weapon programme. We remain committed to seeking justice for the victims," Hunt tweeted.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian echoed the comments, calling for "the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime to end and for the perpetrators of such acts to be punished".
A team of OPCW inspectors took more than 100 samples from seven sites in Douma when they gained access to the town after several weeks of stonewalling by Russia and Syria.
The OPCW said it reached its conclusions based on "witnesses' testimonies, environmental and biomedical samples analysis results as well as toxicological and ballistic analyses from experts."
The report said "two yellow industrial cylinders dedicated for pressurised gas" were found, one of which had landed on top of the housing block and crashed through it.
It said it was "possible that the cylinders were the source of the substances containing reactive chlorine".
Syrian regime claim rejected
The OPCW said witnesses told the team there were "43 decedents related to the alleged chemical incident, most of whom were seen in videos and photos strewn on the floor of multiple levels of an apartment building and in front of the same building."
The videos "indicate exposure to an inhalational irritant or toxic substance" and show burns to the eyes and foaming from the mouth, although it could not directly link those to any specific substance, the report said.
The watchdog also rejected claims by the Syrian regime that the gas came from an alleged rebel chemical weapons facility and storehouse in the area.
"From the analysis of the information gathered during the on-site visits to the warehouse and facility suspected of producing chemical weapons, there was no indication of either facility being involved in their manufacture," it said.
The report will now go to the UN Security Council.
The OPCW has been at the forefront of investigating chemical attacks during the eight-year Syrian civil war, with investigators previously confirming the use of "chlorine, sulphur mustard, and sarin as chemical weapons" in other incidents.
But the agency is now riven by political divisions between Russia and the West, particularly over its new powers to attribute blame.
An attempt to kill a Russian ex-spy by using a nerve agent in Salisbury, England, in 2018, which the West blamed on Moscow, has further poisoned relations.