BEIRUT — Weapons inspectors on Saturday entered the Syrian city of Douma, where a suspected poison gas attack two weeks earlier killed at least 43 people and prompted U.S.-led airstrikes against Syrian military facilities.
After a week of delays, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said that it had visited one of two alleged blast sites in the city to collect samples that will now be analyzed in the Netherlands.
In a statement, the organization said that it would consider a second visit to Douma, where residents and doctors present on the night of the April 7 attack have said that the air filled with the smell of chlorine. Video footage and eyewitness testimonies suggest that some of the victims died foaming at the mouth, a symptom that could indicate exposure to a nerve agent.
The United States, France and the United Kingdom responded to the attack with airstrikes on facilities linked to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons program and demanded an immediate and independent investigation into what caused such a high number of deaths in Douma.
But rather than head straight for the site, the OPCW team was forced to sit in Damascus for much of the past week, leading the United States and France to accuse Syria and its Russian allies of attempting to delay the inspection as they sanitized the alleged blast sites.
On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian blamed the time lapse on “obstructionism” by Syrian and Russian authorities who control the site and said it was intended to undermine the caliber of the investigation.
Russia, which controls much of the city through its military police, rejected that accusation Saturday. “We are calling on our Western colleagues to come to reason and refrain from actions that obstruct the establishment of the truth about the April 7 provocation,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.
She said Moscow expected an “impartial investigation” and a “prompt release of an objective report.”
Russia has rejected earlier international probes into the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s military, including one by the United Nations last year which accused the Syrian army of killing more than 80 people when it dropped a nerve agent on the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun in the early hours of April 4, 2017.
The nature of the chemical weapons allegedly used in Douma remains unclear, and open-source video and photographic evidence has appeared to suggest that one may have involved a more toxic mix than the others.
The inspectors’ report is highly anticipated, as Syrian and Russian state television outlets have aired testimonies from local doctors and alleged victims denying that a chemical attack took place, despite reports of the deaths from Douma.
Local residents interviewed by The Washington Post, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concerns for their safety, said the interviewees had been coerced into giving false statements.
Experts have warned that the OPCW inspectors face an uphill challenge. Chlorine is a gas at room temperature and therefore unlikely to remain at the scene, experts say, while traces of nerve agent are likely to fade fast. It is also hard to draw firm conclusions from traces of chlorine found in biomedical samples because it is a commonly used chemical and chloride compounds show up naturally in the human body.
Local residents interviewed by The Post said Russian military police and Syrian soldiers have blocked off and entered the two locations of the alleged chemical attacks on multiple occasions since they recaptured the area from rebel forces in the wake of the April 7 strikes.
Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow contributed to this report.