Damascus: Chemical weapons inspectors collected samples from Syria’s Douma on Saturday, two weeks after a suspected gas attack there followed by retaliatory strikes by Western powers on the Syrian regime’s chemical facilities.
The site visit, confirmed by the Organisation of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), would allow the agency to proceed with an independent investigation to determine what chemicals, if any, were used in the April 7 attack that medical workers said killed more than 40 people.
Douma was the final target of the regime’s sweeping campaign to seize back control of the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus from opposition groups after seven years of war. Opposition fighters gave up the town days after the alleged attack.
The US, France, and Britain blamed the regime leader Bashar al Assad for the attack, and struck suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities one week later.
The Syrian regime and its ally Russia denied responsibility for the attack.
Firing at investigators
OPCW inspectors arrived in Damascus just hours before the April 15 strikes but were delayed from visiting the site until Saturday, leading Western officials and Syrian activists to accuse Russia and the Syrian regime of staging a cover-up.
“I won’t find any hope in my heart until the Assad regime is held accountable and eradicated from power in Syria,” said Bilal Abou Salah, a Douma media activist who left the town after the regime takeover.
He said he feared Russian and Syrian regime personnel destroyed potential evidence in the two weeks since the alleged attack.
The OPCW said in a statement that it visited “one of the sites” in Douma to collect samples for analysis at agency-designated laboratories, adding it would “consider future steps including another possible visit to Douma.”
It said the mission will draft a report based on the findings, “as well other information and materials collected by the team.”
The OPCW mission is not mandated to apportion to blame for the attack.
A UN security team had scouted Douma on Tuesday to see if it was safe for weapons inspectors to visit. The team came under small arms and explosives fire, leading the agency to delay its mission.
Journalists visiting Douma the previous day, escorted by regime minders, experienced no security issues.
Russian ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the delays to the OPCW team were “unacceptable,” in a statement on Saturday.
Douma is just minutes away from Damascus, where the OPCW team is based.