Moscow, Damascus Reject OPCW Accusations on Chemical Weapons Attacks
Moscow and Damascus dismissed on Thursday accusations by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) that the Syrian air force was behind a series of attacks using sarin and chlorine on an opposition-held town in 2017.
The OPCW investigative team said in a 82-page report issued Wednesday that the Syrian air force dropped bombs containing either chlorine or sarin on a hospital and open farmland in the central town of Latamneh, injuring over 70 people and killing at least three, a surgeon and two other people. Livestock was also killed.
The attacks came amid intense fighting over the opposition-controlled town and parts of northern Hama, the central province where Latamneh is located. It was followed by a regime attack on Khan Sheikoun, a town further north, with suspected chemical agents that killed nearly 100 people.
The Khan Sheikoun attack is not part of the new report but it prompted US missile strikes in April 2017 that targeted Syrian air bases from where the attacks are believed to have been launched.
Moscow rejected the OPCW as politicized, saying it had ignored Russian warnings against releasing the report before comprehensively checking facts.
“The experts, who accused Syria of incidents that took place in 2017, have depended on judgments released by the Fact-Finding committee which included rough violations of the basic principle of the OPCW work that stipulates the need for a logic succession of events while collecting and keeping material evidence,” said Russia’s permanent mission at the OPCW.
It described the accusations as “untrustworthy,” adding that it relied on investigations that were carried out remotely and on statements from “terrorist” groups and the White Helmets volunteer group, which Damascus labels as “terrorists.”
Syria denounced Thursday the report as misleading.
“Syria condemns in the strongest terms what was stated in the report," an unnamed official with the Foreign Ministry said, according to a statement on state media. “At the same time, it categorically denies that it used toxic gases in the town of Latamneh or in any other Syrian city or village.”
The official charged the report relied on “fabricated allegations" from opposition areas, including by militant groups, dominated by al-Qaeda-linked fighters and the White Helmets.
The investigative team concluded that “there are reasonable grounds” to believe the perpetrators of the use of sarin as a chemical weapon in Latamneh in 2017, on March 24 and March 30, and that the use of chlorine as a chemical weapon on March 25, 2017, was part of the Syrian Arab Air Force, coordinator Santiago Oñate-Laborde said.
The investigation included interviews with witnesses, analysis of samples taken from the sites of the attacks, as well as review of symptoms reported by those affected and medical staff, along with examination of imagery, including satellite images.
Syrian authorities repeatedly refused to cooperate with the investigation, the report said.
The Syrian regime consistently rejects allegations it used chemical weapons during the country’s grinding civil war. The new report is likely to fan new calls for accountability for Bashar Assad’s regime.
The Syrian official also said such “false accusations will not deter Syria from continuing its war on terrorism.” Damascus considers all opposition groups terrorists and has kept up military operations against opposition-held areas, lately squeezing nearly 4 million civilians and tens of thousands of fighters in a shrinking enclave in northwestern Syria. A ceasefire went into effect there in March.
The OPCW team was established after Russia blocked the extension of a joint UN-OPCW investigation set up in 2015 that accused Syria of using chlorine in at least two attacks, in 2014 and 2015, and of unleashing the nerve agent sarin in Khan Sheikhoun.
Syria joined the OPCW in 2013 after it was blamed for a deadly poison gas attack in a Damascus suburb. Th regime then declared that some 1,300 tons of chemical weapons and precursor chemicals were subsequently destroyed in an unprecedented international operation.
However, the organization still has unanswered questions on whether Syria has fully disposed of its stockpile.