A team from the United Nations is discussing security arrangements with Syrian and Russian authorities in Syria to allow experts access to the town of Douma to investigate an alleged chemical-weapons attack, UN officials say.
The remarks on April 18 came after the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Uzumcu, said UN security experts had come under fire in the town when they arrived in an attempt to assess the situation.
The AFP news agency reported the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) said it was hoping to make arrangements that would allow the team to deploy "at the earliest possible time and based on lessons learned during the advance security visit."
"UNDSS in Damascus is now engaged in further discussions and coordination with representatives of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Russian military police on how to enhance and reinforce security arrangements in specific locations in Douma," reported AFP, which said it had seen the document.
Western states have accused the Syrian 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.
Western powers also suggested that the government and its ally, Russia, may be delaying the OPCW visit to tamper with evidence.
Damascus and Moscow insist the April 7 incident was fabricated.
The OPCW’s Uzumcu said the organization's team, which arrived in Damascus over the weekend, 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.
Uzumcu said that the UN security team was set to perform reconnaissance at two sites in Douma on April 17 ahead of the arrival of the OPCW inspectors.
When the security team arrived at the first site, a large crowd gathered and the UN experts decided to withdraw, he said. At the second site, "the team came under small-arms fire and an explosive was detonated."
There were no casualties and the team returned to the capital.
The OPCW chief said the two suspected attack sites were under the control of the Russian military police.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis blamed Syria’s government for delays in inspectors reaching the sites, saying it had a history of trying to "clean up the evidence before the investigation team gets in."
"We are very much aware of the delay that the regime imposed on that delegation but we are also very much aware of how they have operated in the past and seal what they have done using chemical weapons," Mattis said.
The U.S. State Department late on April 18 issued a statement restating that it was "holding Russia accountable" for the alleged chemical-weapons use in Syria.
"As we have made clear, the United States agrees with the U.K.’s assessment that Russia is responsible for this use of chemical weapons on U.K. soil -- either through deliberate use or through its failure to declare and secure its stocks of this nerve agent," it said.
It added that "only the government of Russia has the motive, means, and record to conduct such an attack."
"Russia developed the type of military-grade nerve agent used in Salisbury and has a record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations.
"Rather than changing its harmful and destructive behavior, the Russian government offers only denials and counteraccusations to deflect attention from its culpability," it added.