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Chemical weapons body, over Russia objections, votes to assign blame to some attacks

The global chemical weapons watchdog's initiative to apportion blame for poison gas and nerve agent attacks survived two institutional challenges from Russia on Tuesday and is set to become operational next year.

Canada's representative calls it a 'tough but successful day' as body's rulings could carry more force

Personnel in protective gear work on a van in Winterslow, England, during investigations continue into the nerve-agent poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. Russia denies responsibility for the attacks, as has been alleged. (Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

The global chemical weapons watchdog's initiative to apportion blame for poison gas and nerve agent attacks survived two institutional challenges from Russia on Tuesday and is set to become operational next year.

The U.S. and other Western powers at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) staved off a challenge by Russia and China to a June decision to set up an investigative team with the power to name perpetrators of chemical attacks.

It means a major change in the rules of the group, which has often been considered toothless because it could never pinpoint who was behind a chemical attack even if it proved one had happened.

Following a heated session at the OPCW's annual conference, members voted 82-30 to reject a reassessment of the June decision.

Russia and China had argued that the decision should be reviewed to ensure it didn't go beyond the OPCW mandate.

Later, a Russian-Iranian move to reject the annual budget, which would have starved the new investigative team of funds, was also defeated. China, Syria, Pakistan, South Africa, Venezuela and Myanmar were among the countries supporting the unsuccessful bid.

British ambassador Peter Wilson, the U.K.'s representative to OPCW, called it in a Twitter message "an overwhelming result, which clearly says #NoToChemicalWeapons."

Sabine Nolke, Canada's representative at the OPCW, said on social media: "Tough but successful day. Divisions linger but we have a budget to work against #ChemicalWeapons use."

Russia accused of 'pungent hypocrisy'

Sweden was also among the Western bloc that backed the establishment of the new team to apportion blame.

"Clear and strong support for the organization and its new responsibilities. No impunity for chemical weapons use," Annika Markovic, Sweden's envoy to the meeting, tweeted.

UN vehicles carry the team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Damascus on April 14. The international chemical weapons watchdog was in Syria to carry out an investigation into the alleged chemical weapons attack on the town of Douma, where dozens were killed. (Bassem Mroue/Associated Press)

At the meeting, the U.S. representative to the watchdog, Kenneth Ward, complained on Monday that "a tsunami of chemical weapons" had been used this year, especially in Syria, an ally of Russia, and called Moscow's attempts to undo the decision "pungent hypocrisy."

Britain and its allies have also accused Moscow of using a Soviet-era nerve agent in an attempted assassination of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury earlier this year. Russia denies the allegation.

Last June, an 82-24 vote among OPCW members provided more than the necessary two-thirds majority to give the group the mandate to name the parties it found responsible for chemical attacks.

The squad, expected to comprise about 10 to 12 investigators supported by experts and chemical inspectors who already work at the OPCW, will be able to look back at attacks for which the previous UN-OPCW team did not apportion blame.

One case still being investigated by weapons inspectors is the suspected chemical attack in April in the Syrian town of Douma. An interim report said that weapons inspectors found "various chlorinated organic chemicals" at the site.

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