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Russia, Syria Trying To 'Sanitize' Chemical Attack Site, U.S. Says

Russian forces patrol damaged buildings in Douma, near the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Russian forces patrol damaged buildings in Douma, near the Syrian capital, Damascus.

The United States has accused Russia and Syria of trying to "sanitize" the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Douma, while delaying access by experts from the global chemical-weapons watchdog.

"We have credible information that indicates that Russian officials are working with the Syrian regime to deny and to delay these inspectors from gaining access to Douma,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on April 19.

Nauert added that Russian officials have “worked with the Syrian regime to sanitize the locations of the suspected attacks and remove incriminating evidence of chemical weapons use."

U.S. allies have also suggested that the Syrian government and its ally, Russia, may be delaying a visit by international inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to tamper with evidence.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on April 19 dismissed the allegations as “outright nonsense, a blatant lie."

Western powers accuse the Damascus government of an April 7 chemical attack in Douma, near Damascus, where the World Health Organization said 43 people who died suffered "symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals."

The United States, Britain, and France bombed several Syrian government sites on April 14 in retaliation.

Damascus and Moscow insist the April 7 incident was fabricated.

The OPCW team arrived in Damascus over the weekend but have not been able to travel to Douma, near the capital, to investigate the alleged chemical attack.

On April 19, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said UN security experts had come under fire in the town when they arrived in an attempt to assess the situation.

Uzumcu said the organization’s team will not visit Douma until the UN security experts deem it safe and only if the chemical-weapons inspectors "can have unhindered access to the sites."

"At present, we do not know when the team can be deployed to Douma," he added.

In New York, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on April 19 that discussions were taking place in Syria's capital with all key parties on security arrangements for the OPCW inspectors to visit Douma.

She also said that "due to the volatility" of the situation on the ground, the UN doesn't want "to telegraph" when a security team will return to the town.

Also on April 19, the Pentagon said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad still retained the ability to launch "limited" chemical weapons attacks.

"They do retain a residual capability. It is probably spread throughout the country at a variety of sites," said Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, director of the U.S. military's Joint Staff.

"They will have the ability to conduct limited attacks in the future, I would not rule that out," McKenzie added.

He also said that the U.S., British, and French air strikes last week destroyed three targets tied to Syria's weapons program, including a large research center in Damascus.

"We achieved the level of success that we wanted against those three targets," McKenzie said.

"We believe that there was probably some chlorine and possibly sarin at possibly all of the sites," he also said.

With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and AP

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