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Syrian chemical probe delayed after UN security team comes under fire

UN security team says area unsafe for OPCW inspectors, sources tell Reuters, delaying start of inspection
UN vehicles carrying OPCW inspectors arrive in Damascus, Syria, on April 14 (Reuters)

Chemical weapons inspectors on Wednesday again delayed visiting the site of an alleged attack in Syria's Douma after their UN security team came under fire at the location, reports have said.

Nine inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have pushed back their visit to the town, east of Damascus, sources told the Reuters news agency, and are not expected to arrive until Thursday at the earliest. 

One source told Reuters the advance team had "encountered a security issue" including gunfire which led to the delay, but could not provide additional details. Another said they had been met by protesters demanding aid, and gunfire was heard. The UN then left.

A UN official told the AFP news agency that "shots were fired yesterday at a UN security team doing a reconnaissance in Douma... They were not injured and returned to Damascus."

Douma attacks: What we know so far, and what world powers have told us
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Russia, the Syrian government's principal backer, said last week that Douma was fully under government control. An official close to the Syrian government claimed the UN security team was met by protesters demonstrating against the US-led strikes, but did not mention any shooting. "It was a message from the people," said the official.

OPCW inspectors arrived in Syria on Saturday to investigate the alleged chemical attack on civilians in Douma, on 7 April, but have yet to gain access to the site. Eleven days have now passed since the incident with no independent inspection.

The suspected attack reportedly left more than 40 people dead. The US, UK and France blamed the Syrian governmen and attacked what they said were three chemical weapons facilities in the early hours of last Saturday. 

France has said it was very likely that evidence of the gas attack was disappearing before the inspectors could reach the town. The UK this week said Russia was delaying investigations.

Syrian Ambassador Bashar Jaafari on Tuesday told a meeting of the UN Security Council that the team of experts would begin work on Wednesday once they receive the all-clear from their security detail.

"If this United Nations security team decides that the situation is sound in Douma then the fact-finding mission will begin its work in Douma tomorrow," Jaafari told the council in New York.

Russia has offered several narratives on Douma, claiming simultaneously that there was never an attack, that it was the work of rebels in the area, and that it was an "Anglo-Saxon" conspiracy to spark a provocation.

It said its investigations shortly after the attack had found no evidence of of a chemical weapons release.

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