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West rushed to judgment in Syria gas incident: Russia

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Syrians bury the bodies of victims of an incident involving toxic gas in Khan Shaykhun, an opposition-held town in Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province, April 5, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

Russia has criticized the United States and its Western allies for rushing to blame the Syrian government for a chemical gas incident in an opposition-held town in Syria without even visiting the site.

The Russian mission to the United Nations (UN) blamed the West in a pair of letters delivered to the world body’s Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the UN Security Council on Wednesday.

It also said that a report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had been “very biased.”

Over 90 people died in an April 4 incident involving chemicals in Khan Shaykhun, in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib. The Western countries said at the time that it had been a chemical attack by the Syrian government.

Three days later, using the incident as a pretext, US military fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat airfield in Syria’s central province of Homs, from where it said the purported attack had been launched. The US attack reportedly killed several people.

Damascus has consistently denied conducting such an attack, pointing out that under a 2013 deal, it had surrendered its entire stockpiles of chemical weapons to a joint mission led by the UN and the OPCW, which oversaw the destruction of the chemicals. Syria said it had carried out a conventional airstrike on militant positions in Khan Shaykhun, which also targeted a chemical arms depot held and run by anti-Damascus militants, causing a leakage of a toxic substance and the deaths.

The fact-finding team from the OPCW published the results of its probe of the incident in late June, confirming that the chemical substance in the Khan Shaykhun incident had been the nerve gas sarin. But it is now up to a joint UN-OPCW body, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), to find the party that used the gas.

In the letters, the Russian mission to the UN said the report had not addressed the question of who was responsible for the gas incident and how the chemical had been used.

“[O]ne important question remains unanswered — by whom, in what circumstances and how it was used,” the Russian letter said.

A man carries the body of a dead child, after incident involving chemicals in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun, April 4, 2017. (Photo by Reuters)

“It will be impossible to establish the truth without a visit to Khan Shaykhun by the experts of the fact-finding mission and the Joint Investigative Mechanism, although the perpetrators and organizers of this horrific act of provocation have already done a lot of cleaning up and manipulation,” the Russian mission said.

It also said that inspecting the Shayrat airfield was still a “priority,” as the Western countries had claimed that it was the launching pad for the alleged attack.

Moscow also said that Damascus had “offered guarantees” of providing OPCW inspectors full access to the facility soon after the “tragic events” in the Syrian town but the watchdog’s experts had not shown up.

This satellite photo of the Shayrat airfield in Syria was released by the US following its missile strikes on the field on April 7, 2017. (Via AFP)

The UK, Turkey, and France also carried out their probes into the incident and came up with “quite predictable and peremptory findings” as the US did, blaming Damascus for the purported attack, the letters said, adding that those findings, too, raised plenty of questions, including on whether the collection of evidence had been based on international standards.

The letters also asked how the trio had managed to obtain evidence without taking the opportunity to visit Khan Shaykhun.

“Perhaps we should first of all seek to investigate the ‘real estate agents’ from an armed opposition group, who rented out a building for the storage of toxic chemicals, and the ambulances from a neighboring country that removed the injured persons, perhaps as prearranged, from the scene of the chemical attack?” the Russian UN mission said.

Syria has been gripped by militancy since March 2011, when a section of the opposition in the country took up arms against President Bashar al-Assad. A vast mix of foreign terrorists soon blended with the armed opposition, joining the fight against the Syrian government.

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