Chemical Inspectors in Syria So Far Blocked From Attack Site

(Bloomberg) -- Inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog met Syrian officials in Damascus on Monday but have so far been denied access to the former rebel stronghold where the alleged use of toxic substances provoked a U.S.-led strike.

Western powers have traded threats and accusations with Russia -- the main backer of the Syrian regime -- since launching missile strikes over the weekend to punish what they said was a chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians.

The U.S. has raised the prospect of more sanctions against Russia. Critics have complained that the strikes preempted the probe by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons into the alleged attack on April 7.

The fact-finders arrived in Damascus on Saturday but the OPCW said their visit to Douma had been delayed by Syrian and Russian officials citing “pending security issues.”

“The team has not yet deployed to Douma,” OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said in a statement.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government said on Monday it was ready to cooperate and facilitate the work of the OPCW team, but did not say when they would go to the site.

The delays prompted a bout of complaints from the U.S. and U.K, which both called on Syria and Russia to allow the inspectors unfettered access. Moscow denied it was blocking OPCW experts but said the United Nations security department had not yet agreed for the mission to travel to Douma, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

Trading Accusations

The U.S. said no special UN permission was required.

“Chemical weapons were used on Syrian men, women, and children in #Douma. Reports that #OPCW weapons inspectors require special @UN passes are completely false. #Syria and #Russia need to stop the disinformation and allow unfettered access to the attack sites,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Twitter.

Assad’s government has denied ever using toxic chemicals in the course of its seven-year civil war, although previous OPCW missions have detected toxic substances.

Assad agreed to turn over his chemical weapons after a sarin nerve gas attack near the capital in August 2013, but Western countries say compliance has been partial.

Russia has argued both that the attack in the Syrian city of Douma never happened or that it was orchestrated by the U.S. and its allies to provoke a military response.

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