A UN security team has come under fire in Syria while doing reconnaissance for inspectors to visit sites of a suspected chemical weapons attack, and officials said it was no longer clear when the inspectors would be able to go in.
The inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are in Syria to investigate an April 7 incident in which Western countries and rescue workers say scores of civilians were gassed to death by government forces.
OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) had decided to carry out reconnaissance at two sites in the town of Douma before the inspectors would visit them.
“On arrival at site one, a large crowd gathered and the advice provided by the UNDSS was that the reconnaissance team should withdraw,” he told a meeting at the watchdog’s headquarters in remarks it later released.
“At site two, the team came under small arms fire and an explosive was detonated. The reconnaissance team returned to Damascus.”
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis blamed the Syrian government for delays in inspectors reaching the sites and said it has 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,” Mr Mattis said before the start of a meeting with his counterpart from Qatar.
The United States, Britain and France fired missiles at Syrian targets on Saturday in retaliation for the suspected chemical use.
They say the arrival of the inspectors is being held up by Syrian authorities who now control the area, and that evidence of the chemical attack may be being destroyed.
Damascus and its ally Moscow deny that any gas attack took place, that they are holding up the inspections or that they have tampered with evidence at the site.
Britain’s ambassador to the OPCW Peter Wilson said it was now unclear when the inspectors would be able to reach it.
The rebel group based in Douma announced its surrender hours after the suspected chemical attack, and the last rebels left a week later, hours after the Western retaliation strikes.