Chemical weapons watchdog demands answers from Syria after chlorine cylinders destroyed

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The international chemical weapons watchdog has demanded more information from Syria about the reported recent destruction of two chlorine cylinders that had been linked to a 2018 deadly attack on the Syrian town of Douma — a demand echoed Wednesday by several members of the U.N. Security Council.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Syria’s government sent a note to its secretariat July 9 reporting that the two cylinders were destroyed by a June 8 airstrike on a Syrian military facility which housed a former chemical weapons production facility.

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Syrian state media reported on June 8 that Israeli aircraft had attacked near the Syrian capital of Damascus and in the central province of Homs. The targets were not disclosed.

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The watchdog said that in November the cylinders had been stored and inspected “at another declared site approximately 60 kilometers (about 38 miles) from the location at which they were reportedly destroyed” and that Syria had been advised “it was not to open, move, or alter the containers or their contents in any way without seeking the prior written consent of the secretariat.”

The agency said it never received notification the cylinders had been moved until it was informed of their destruction. It asked Syria on July 15 to provide “all relevant information regarding the movement of the two cylinders and any remains of their destruction.”

The watchdog’s report added that during the November check of the cylinders, inspectors were ordered to transport them to the organization’s headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, but Syrians officials would not allow them to be shipped out of the country.

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The report, which the U.N. disarmament chief presented to the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, also requested further information and documentation regarding the damage to the production facility on June 8.

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Britain’s U.N. ambassador, Barbara Woodward, told the council: “This incident represents not only the highly concerning failure by Syria to comply with important OPCW requests, but also unauthorized interference with evidence central to an ongoing high-profile investigation.”

Deputy French Ambassador Nathalie Broadhurst called the unauthorized movement and destruction of the two chlorine cylinders “of great concern.”

Syrian Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh told the council that the Israeli attack on a previously declared chemical weapons production facility led to the destruction of many chambers, fuel, “and the two cylinders involved in the alleged Douma incident.”

He criticized the OPCW report for failing to condemn the attack and focusing “only on the technical aspects.” He accused the OPCW of “politicization” and becoming “a tool in the hands of some countries.”

Sabbagh said Syria refused to allow the cylinders to be moved out of the country because they are part of a criminal investigation and “are legal, physical evidence in relation to the alleged incident in which the terrorists used the chemical weapon and that led to the killing of innocent civilians.”

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The OPCW said in 2019 that its investigators found “reasonable grounds” that chlorine was used as a weapon in the attack on Douma on the outskirts of Damascus, which medical workers said killed more than 40 people and injured as many as 100.

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At the time of the April 2018 attack, Douma was held by rebels but besieged by pro-government forces. The attack triggered missile strikes a week later on Syrian government targets by the United States, Britain and France, which blamed President Bashar Assad’s government for the Douma incident.

Syria has denied it carried out the Douma attack.

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, whose country is a close ally of Syria, again accused the OPCW and its director of bias “to make the facts fit the conclusion of Damascus’ guilt.” He claimed there were “glaring manipulations in the Douma report.”

Polyansky called it “very strange” that the OPCW report focused on Syria moving the cylinders without any assessment of the airstrikes.

“Even if the Syrian party did move them within its own territory, which we understand Syria has full rights to do, does this mean the airstrike is justified, which is essentially an act of aggression against a sovereign state?,” Polyansky asked.

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