Chemical weapons inspectors finally reach Syrian town hit by suspected gas attack
Syria and Russia deny any chemical attack took place, while activists say dozens were killed
International inspectors on Tuesday entered the Syrian town where an alleged chemical attack was carried out earlier this month, Syrian state media reported Tuesday, following delays by Syrian and Russian authorities.
The fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is investigating reports that government forces launched an April 7 chemical attack in the final stages of their campaign to retake the town from rebels. The alleged gas attack, which Syrian activists say killed more than 40 people, prompted punitive U.S., British and French airstrikes.
Syria and its ally Russia deny any chemical attack took place, and Russian officials have accused Britain of staging a "fake" chemical attack. British Prime Minister Theresa May says Syria and Russia — whose forces now control the town east of Damascus — are trying to cover up evidence.
Journalists were allowed access to the suspected attack sites on Monday, but the OPCW said Syrian and Russian authorities blocked the inspectors.
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The Associated Press spoke to survivors and witnesses who described being hit by gas. Several said a strange smell started spreading and people screamed, "It's chlorine! It's chlorine!"
Lack of evidence
The U.S. and France say they have evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces used poison gas in the attack, but they have not provided any evidence, even after Saturday's punitive missile strikes.
Douma was the last rebel-held town near Damascus, and the target of a government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds of people and displaced tens of thousands. Hours after the alleged chemical attack, the rebel faction that controlled the town, the Army of Islam, relented and was evacuated from the area along with thousands of residents.
The lack of access to Douma has left unanswered questions about the attack earlier this month. OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said Syrian and Russian officials cited "pending security issues" in keeping its inspectors from reaching Douma.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Monday the inspectors could not go to the site because they needed approval from the UN Department for Safety and Security. He denied that Russia was hampering the mission and suggested the approval was held up because of the Western airstrikes.
However, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the United Nations had provided all the necessary clearances for the team to visit Douma.