A boy stands next to the remains of a missile, in Douma, near Damascus, Syria, April 16, 2018.
A boy stands next to the remains of a missile, in Douma, near Damascus, Syria, April 16, 2018.

There was confusion Tuesday about whether a team of international experts had arrived in Douma, Syria, to determine whether chemical weapons were used in an attack there 10 days ago.

Syrian state TV and the White Helmets volunteer rescue group said separately that a fact-finding team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had come to Douma.

But a U.S. State Department spokeswoman contradicted those reports Tuesday afternoon. "Our understanding is that the team has not entered Douma," Heather Nauert said.

Syria's U.N. ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, said at a Security Council meeting that the U.N. security team was in Douma on Tuesday.

''The Syrian government has implemented all necessary measures to facilitate the arrival of the fact-finding mission to Syria," Jaafari said. "Today, the security team — the U.N. security team — entered Douma around 3 p.m. Damascus time, 8 a.m. New York time, in order to assess the security situation on the ground. If this security team, 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. The decision for the arrival of the fact-finding mission is the decision of the United Nations and the OPCW alone. The Syrian government did all that it can do to facilitate the work of this mission.''

Arrived Saturday

OPCW investigators arrived in Syria on Saturday, the day that the U.S., Britain and France launched missiles targeting Syrian chemical weapons facilities. But the inspectors initially were not allowed to go to Douma, near Damascus, to try to verify the nature of the suspected gas attack.

With the 10-day delay since the attack, the French foreign ministry said, "It is highly likely that evidence and essential elements disappear from the site, which is completely controlled by the Russian and Syrian armies."

Ken Ward, the U.S. ambassador to the chemical weapons watchdog, said  Monday that the Russians had already visited the site and "may have tampered with it," which Moscow rejected.

FILE - A child is treated in a hospital in Douma,
FILE - A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, near Damascus, Syria, after a suspected chemical attack, April 7, 2018.

In the hours immediately after the missile strike, U.S. President Donald Trump basked in its success:

But on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron adopted a more nuanced view of the attack.

"Three countries have intervened, and let me be quite frank, quite honest — this is for the honor of the international community," he said in Strasbourg, France. "These strikes don't necessarily resolve anything, but I think they were important."

U.S. military officials have said the strikes were designed to send a powerful message to Syria and its backers, showing the U.S., Britain and France could slice through the nation's air defense systems at will.

"We did what we believe was right under international law," U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon.

"I hope that this time the Assad regime got the message," he added.

The U.S. State Department had accused Russia of trying to block the inspectors from investigating the attack in Douma "by making it more complicated" for the specialists to do their work. 

"They probably want to do that because they recognize that the longer that a site goes untested, the more that the elements, the chemicals, can start to disappear," the State Department's Nauert told Alhurra television.

Russia had blamed the delays on the U.S., French and British missile strikes. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also said the mission was not allowed in because it lacked approval from the U.N. Department for Safety and Security. U.N. officials in New York disputed the claim.

A Syrian man holds bread as Syrian authorities dis
A Syrian man holds bread as Syrian authorities distributed basic staples to Douma residents, near Damascus, Syria, April 16, 2018.

Russia and Syria say no chemical attack occurred at Douma.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that evidence cited by the United States, Britain and France to justify the missile attack was based "on media reports and social media." He accused Britain of staging the attack.

The U.S. and its allies blame the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for the chemical weapons attack.

Syrian media reported another missile attack early Thursday in Homs province, but later said it was a false alarm and not an outside attack that triggered air defense systems.

Meanwhile, State Department spokesperson Nauert told Alhurra the United States was pushing for a renewed focus on the so-called Geneva process, which the United Nations began in 2012 as a road map for ending the seven-year Syrian conflict with a new constitution and elections.

"The only thing that I can hope that is positive that came out of the terrible news in Syria last week is to reinvigorate that political process," she said. "So, it is our hope now that countries will go back to the Geneva process and we'll be able to make some progress there."

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini made a similar call Monday ahead of a ministerial meeting, saying there was a clear need to push for relaunching the U.N.-led peace process.

VOA's Margaret Besheer at the United Nations and Jeff Seldin at the Pentagon contributed to this report.

 

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