International chemical weapons inspectors will be allowed on Wednesday to visit the site of a poison gas attack in the Syrian town of Douma, Russian officials have said.
The attack last week led France, the US and the UK to launch missile strikesagainst three targets in Syria on Saturday morning, which were designed to degrade the remaining chemical weapons facilities of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
On Tuesday, French president Emmanuel Macron said the strikes on Syria had been “for the honour of the international community”.
France’s foreign ministry said it was very likely that proof has disappeared from the Douma site, adding it was essential that the inspectors be given full access.
“As of today, Russia and Syria still refuse to give inspectors access to the site of the attack,” the foreign ministry said in a statement on Tuesday. “It is very likely that proof and essential elements are disappearing from this site.”
Russia has insisted video and pictures of the chemical attack in the then rebel-held area were faked with the help of British intelligence. Moscow said it had not been putting any barriers in the way of the fact-finding mission from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reaching the site.
A group of reporters, many favoured by Moscow, were taken to the site on Monday before the weapons inspectors.
They either reported that no weapon attack had occurred or said the victims were misled by the White Helmets civilian defence force into mistaking a choking effect, due to dust clouds, for a chemical attack. As many as 40 civilians died in the attack.
Igor Kirillov, the head of Russia’s radiological, biological and chemical protection unit, told reporters that roads still had to cleared of mines and debris, and they would be tested by UN security services on Tuesday.
“On Wednesday is when we plan the arrival of the OPCW experts,” he told a press conference at the Russian embassy in The Hague.
The OPCW director general, Ahmet Üzümcü, issued a statement on Monday saying his nine-person volunteer team of expert inspectors had yet to be deployed to Douma. Eleven days have passed since the attack, and some of the inspectors reached the Syrian capital, Damascus, five days ago.
Üzümcü said Russia and Syrian officials had warned of “pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place”.
The UN denied the inspectors were waiting for permits from it to visit the site. Instead of doing so on Sunday, inspectors met the Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisel Mekdad, in the presence of Russian security officials for three hours.
They were also given the offer of meeting witnesses sent to Damascus from Douma, which is under the control of Russian and Syrian troops after rebel forces were ousted.
With trust between the western allies and Russia effectively nonexistent, and the credibility of many countries at stake, the two sides have been accusing each other of lies and propaganda. The US said it feared Russia was tampering with the site of the attack.
After previous intelligence failures by Britain and the US in Iraq, there is an audience in the west for Russian claims of a staged attack .
But the US representative to the OPCW, Ken Ward, said the Russians had already visited the site and “may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission”.
Western diplomats questioned how it had been possible for Russia to secure safe passage for selected reporters, but not weapons inspectors.
The foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said: “I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site.”
Russia’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Alexander Shulgin, said it was a “blatant lie” that Moscow was hampering the investigation.
Instead, he said the US, France and Britain were “standing in the way” of the investigation by ordering military strikes “in the blink of an eye” before the OPCW team had had a chance to do their work.
In a statement to a meeting of the OPCW executive on Monday, Russia’s envoy presented what he described as disgusting photographic evidence of how the White Helmets staged attacks “where actors involved in the footage suddenly resurrect and seem to be safe and sound”.
The White Helmets is a humanitarian organisation made up of 3,400 volunteers who rescue civilians from rubble after airstrikes. Its work is partly UK-funded.
“For money from western countries, they prepare staged videos, disseminate photos with a story they are really fond of – ‘suffering children’ – victims of [the] Assad bloody regime,” the envoy said.
“There were no witnesses, no victims with symptoms of chemical poisoning in the hospital. No remains of the chemical weapons munitions were discovered.”
The OPCW team aims to collect samples, interview witnesses and document evidence to determine whether banned toxic munitions were used, although it is not permitted under UN rules to assign blame for the attack, only to state whether a chemical attack occurred.
The joint UN-OPCW team that had been empowered to determine culpability for an attack was disbanded in November after Russia vetoed the renewal of its mandate, largely because it said the inspection team sometimes made judgments on responsibility without personally visiting sites.
Russia has asked for an open UN security council briefing on Tuesday on Raqqa, a former Islamic State stronghold that is now under US control, and the situation in the Rukban refugee camp in the US-controlled Tanf district. The aim is to show the US is badly mishandling the refugee crisis inside Syria, and contrast this with areas held by Russia.