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OPCW experts start probe into gas attack after Syria strikes

OPCW experts start probe into gas attack after Syria strikes


AFP
Damascus, Syria
International inspectors launched their investigation on Sunday into an alleged chemical attack near Damascus that prompted an unprecedented wave of Western strikes against Syria's regime.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, the regime's top ally, warned that fresh strikes would spark"chaos", but Washington promised economic sanctions on Moscow rather than further military action.
US, French and British missiles destroyed sites suspected of hosting chemical weapons development and storage facilities Saturday, but the buildings were mostly empty and the Western trio swiftly reverted to its diplomatic efforts.
US President Donald Trump lauded the"perfectly executed" strike, the biggest international attack on President Bashar al-Assad's regime during Syria's seven-year war, but both Damascus and Syria's opposition rubbished its impact.
A team of chemical experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, arrived in Damascus hours after the strikes.
They have been tasked with investigating the site of the alleged April 7 attack in the town of Douma, just east of the capital Damascus, which Western powers said involved chlorine and sarin and killed dozens.
They arrived in Damascus on Saturday but there were no reports they had travelled to Douma to begin their field work, as announced by a senior Syrian official earlier.
An AFP reporter saw Deputy Minister Faisal Mokdad enter the Four Seasons hotel where the chemical experts are staying and leave three hours later.
The fact-finding team usually starts its investigation by meeting top officials but any talks were held behind closed doors and both parties imposed a strict media blackout.
"We will ensure they can work professionally, objectively, impartially and free of any pressure," Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Soussan told AFP.
The OPCW itself had declared that the Syrian government's chemical weapons stockpile had been removed in 2014, only to confirm later that sarin was used in a 2017 attack in the northern town of Khan Sheikhun.
The inspectors will face a difficult task, with all key players having pre-empted their findings, including Western powers, which justified the strikes by claiming they already had proof such weapons were used.
The OPCW team will also have to deal with the risk that evidence may have been removed from the site, which lies in an area that has been controlled by Russian military police and Syrian forces over the past week.
"That possibility always has to be taken into account, and investigators will look for evidence that shows whether the incident site has been tampered with," Ralf Trapp, a consultant and member of a previous OPCW mission to Syria, told AFP.
The Syrian military late Saturday declared Eastern Ghouta, the former rebel enclave of which Douma is the main town, fully retaken after a blistering two-month assault.
Wresting back the opposition stronghold on the doorstep of Damascus had been a priority for the resurgent regime.

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