U.S. is discussing chemical weapons use in Syria with Russia: Pentagon

U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis reviews the honor guard before meeting with the Brazilian Defense Minister Joaquim Silva e Luna (not pictured) in Brasilia, Brazil August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Tuesday that the United States had recently discussed the use of chemical weapons in Syria with Russia, after media reports that Syria was moving chemical weapons into a rebel-held area the government seeks to recapture.

“You have seen our administration act twice on the use of chemical weapons,” Mattis told reporters. “I will assure you that (the) Department of State has been in active communication, recent active communication, with Russia to enlist them in preventing this … The communication is going on.”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Tim Ahmann)

U.S. strongly condemns Russia’s poisoning of former spy: White House

By Jeff Mason

BERKLEY HEIGHTS, New Jersey (Reuters) – The White House said on Friday the United States strongly condemned Russia’s use of chemical weapons against a former Russian agent in Britain, two days after the U.S. State Department announced sanctions over the move.

“The attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom, on March 4, 2018, was a reckless display of contempt for the universally held norm against chemical weapons,” said a spokesman for the White House National Security Council in an email.

The spokesman said sanctions that the State Department said it would impose by the end of August fulfilled its legal obligations “after determining a foreign government has used chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals or in violation of international law.”

Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury in March after a liquid form of the Novichok type of nerve agent was applied to his home’s front door.

President Donald Trump, who is spending the week at his golf property in New Jersey, did not comment on the recent sanctions when asked about them by a reporter on Thursday. Trump has sought to improve relations with Russia despite U.S. intelligence findings that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

European countries and the United States have expelled 100 Russian diplomats since that attack, in the toughest action by Trump against Russia since he came to office.

Trump and his advisers have often appeared at odds over how strongly to act against Moscow. In the run-up to a summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, U.S. officials repeatedly called out Russia over its “malign” activities, but Trump did not use such language during a news conference with Putin.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Chemical weapons inspectors to collect new samples in UK nerve agent poisoning

A forensic investigator, wearing a protective suit, emerges from the rear of John Baker House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Inspectors of the world’s chemical weapons watchdog will return to Britain on request of the government to take new samples of the nerve agent which killed one person and injured another in Amesbury, England, in June.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on Tuesday said it would deploy a team to collect additional samples, to be analyzed in two laboratories designated by the agency.

In July the British government asked the OPCW to independently identify a substance which the authorities had found to be Novichok — the same nerve agent used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March.

Britain blamed Russia for the Skripal poisoning but the Kremlin denied involvement.

In June, two Britons fell ill in Amesbury after being exposed to the poison in southwest England, close to where the Skripals were attacked. One of them died.

Britain is ready to ask Russia to extradite two men it suspects of carrying out a nerve agent attack on Skripal, the Guardian newspaper reported on Monday, citing government and security sources.

(Reporting by Bart Meijer; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

UK police hunt nerve agent container after woman dies

Dawn Sturgess, who has died as a result of Novichok poisoning, is pictured in Salisbury, Britain June 27, 2016, in this picture obtained from social media. Facebook/Dawn Sturgess via REUTERS

By Paul Sandle and William Schomberg

LONDON (Reuters) – A woman who died after being poisoned with a nerve agent that also struck a former Russian spy in March must have handled a contaminated item, and tracking it down is key to police investigations, Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer said.

FILE PHOTO: Forensic investigators, wearing protective suits, emerge from the rear of John Baker House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Forensic investigators, wearing protective suits, emerge from the rear of John Baker House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

Dawn Sturgess, 44, died on Sunday just over a week after she was exposed to Novichok in southwestern England, a few miles from where Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were attacked with the same poison.

The death of Sturgess, a mother of three, was being treated as a murder, police said.

“This latest horrendous turn of events has only served to strengthen the resolve of our investigation team as we work to identify those responsible for this outrageous, reckless and barbaric act,” counter-terrorism police chief Neil Basu said.

Basu told reporters the priority was to determine how Sturgess and her partner, 45-year-old Charlie Rowley who is critically ill, came across an item contaminated with Novichok, developed by the Soviet military during the Cold War.

Britain and its allies blamed Russia for the attack in March on the Skripals, prompting the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War. Moscow has rejected the accusations and has hit back by expelling Western diplomats.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said she was appalled and shocked by Sturgess’s death and the interior minister, Sajid Javid, said the “desperately sad news only strengthens our resolve to find out exactly what has happened”.

Javid, who is chairing a meeting of the government’s emergency committee on Monday, has said there were no plans at this stage for further sanctions against Russia.

The Skripals fell ill after the poison was applied to the ex-spy’s front door in the city of Salisbury. Sturgess and Rowley were found at a house in Amesbury, 11 kilometers (7 miles) away.

FILE PHOTO: A police officer stands in front of screening erected behind John Baker House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 5, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A police officer stands in front of screening erected behind John Baker House, after it was confirmed that two people had been poisoned with the nerve-agent Novichok, in Amesbury, Britain, July 5, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

Basu said the severe reaction of Sturgess and Rowley meant they must have received a high dose of Novichok.

“Our hypothesis is that they must have handled a container we are now seeking,” he said. “Our focus and priority at this time is to identify and locate any container that we believe may be the source of the contamination.”

The poisoning of the Skripals was the first known offensive use of such a chemical weapon in Europe since World War Two.

Russia has denied any involvement in the Skripal case and suggested the British security services carried out the attack to stoke anti-Moscow hysteria, an assertion London calls absurd.

FATAL TOUCH

Sturgess and Rowley fell ill on June 30. Medical workers initially suspected a drug overdose but tests by the Porton Down military research center showed they had been exposed to Novichok.

Britain has notified the global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Sturgess died at Salisbury District Hospital, the same facility that nursed the critically ill Skripals.

Yulia Skripal, Sergei’s daughter, was in a coma for 20 days after she was attacked and was eventually discharged about five weeks after the poisoning. Her father was discharged on May 18.

“The staff here at Salisbury District Hospital worked tirelessly to save Dawn. They did everything they could,” Christine Blanshard, medical director at the hospital said.

Britain’s public health authority acknowledged on Friday the concerns of people living in the area after the two incidents involving Novichok, but said it was confident that the risk to the public remained low.

(Additional reporting by Michael Holden, Andrew MacAskill and Kate Kelland; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Two Britons poisoned with Novichok nerve agent near where Russian spy was struck down

Police officers stand in front of Amesbury Baptist Church, which has been cordoned off after two people were hospitalised and police declared a 'major incident', in Amesbury, Wiltshire, Britain, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By Henry Nicholls

AMESBURY, England (Reuters) – Two British citizens were critically ill in hospital on Wednesday after they were poisoned with the Novichok nerve agent which struck down a former Russian agent and his daughter in March, Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer said.

The British pair, a 44-year-old woman and a 45-year-old man, were hospitalized after being found unwell on Saturday in Amesbury, just a few miles from Salisbury where ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were attacked in March.

“I have received test results from Porton Down [military research centre] which show that the two people have been exposed to the nerve agent Novichok,” Neil Basu, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, told reporters.

UK counter-terrorism police are now leading the investigation, though Basu said it was unclear how the two people came into contact with the nerve agent or whether they had been specifically targetted.

Amesbury is just seven miles (11 km) north of Salisbury, where the Skripals were found slumped unconscious on a bench on March 4.

Police have cordoned off at least five different areas, including a park and a property in Salisbury, and a pharmacy and a Baptist church community centre in Amesbury although health chiefs said the risk to the public was low.

Britain accused Russia of poisoning Skripal with Novichok nerve agent, the first known offensive use of such a chemical weapon on European soil since World War Two.

The attack prompted the biggest Western expulsion of Russian diplomats since the Cold War as allies in Europe and the United States sided with Prime Minister Theresa May’s view that Moscow was either responsible or had lost control of the nerve agent.

Russia denied any involvement and suggested Britain had carried out the attack to stoke anti-Russian hysteria.

Moscow has hit back by expelling Western diplomats, questioning how Britain knows that Russia was responsible and offering its rival interpretations, including that it amounted to a plot by British secret services.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said the government’s emergency response committee had met to discuss the incident.

Paramedics were called on Saturday morning to a house in Amesbury after the woman collapsed and returned later in the day when the man also fell ill.

The pair, who are being treated at Salisbury District Hospital, were initially believed to have taken heroin or crack cocaine from a contaminated batch but tests showed they had been poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet military in the Cold War.

“We are not in a position to say whether the nerve agent was from the same batch that the Skripals were exposed to,” Basu said. “The possibility that these two investigations might be linked is clearly a line of enquiry for us.”

The hospital is where the Skripals also spent weeks in a critical condition before slowly recovering and being discharged.

Russia has said it does not possess such nerve agents, did not develop Novichok, and President Vladimir Putin dismissed as nonsense the notion that Moscow would have poisoned Skripal and his daughter.

(Reporting by Andy Bruce and Kate Holton in London; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Gareth Jones)

U.S. has plan to dismantle North Korea nuclear program within a year: Bolton

FILE PHOTO: White House National Security Advisor John Bolton steps from Air Force One upon U.S. President Donald Trump's arrival in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., April 16, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File P

By Hyonhee Shin and Doina Chiacu

SEOUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday he believed the bulk of North Korea’s weapons programs could be dismantled within a year, as the United States and North Korea resumed working-level talks.

Bolton told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Washington has devised a program to dismantle North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological and nuclear – and ballistic missile programs in a year, if there is full cooperation and disclosure from Pyongyang.

“If they have the strategic decision already made to do that and they’re cooperative, we can move very quickly,” he said. “Physically we would be able to dismantle the overwhelming bulk of their programs within a year.”

He said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will likely discuss that proposal with the North Koreans soon. The Financial Times reported that Pompeo was due to visit North Korea this week but the State Department has not confirmed any travel plans.

South Korea media reported on Sunday that Sung Kim, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, met with North Korean officials on Sunday at the border village of Panmunjom within the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas to coordinate an agenda for Pompeo’s next visit to North Korea.

Kim’s delegation delivered Pompeo’s letter to Kim Yong Chol, a top Pyongyang official who met Pompeo and U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of last month’s historic summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, Yonhap news agency said, citing an unnamed diplomatic source.

Some experts disputed Bolton’s optimistic time frame for decommissioning the North’s weapons.

“It would be physically possible to dismantle the bulk of North Korea’s programs within a year,” said Thomas Countryman, the State Department’s top arms control officer under President Barack Obama.

“I do not believe it would be possible to verify full dismantlement within a year, nor have I yet seen evidence of a firm DPRK decision to undertake full dismantlement.”

North Korea is completing a major expansion of a key missile-manufacturing plant, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday, citing researchers who have examined new satellite imagery from San Francisco-based Planet Labs Inc.

Images analyzed by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California show North Korea was finishing construction on the exterior of the plant around the time Kim Jong Un held a summit with Trump last month, the report said.

The Chemical Material Institute in Hamhung makes solid-fuel ballistic missiles, which could allow North Korean to transport and launch a missile more quickly, compared to a liquid-fuel system that requires lengthy preparation.

Last week, 38 North, a website run by the Johns Hopkins University, said satellite imagery showed the North had been upgrading its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

“None of this activity technically violates any agreement Kim may have made,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor at MIT’s security studies Programme.

“What it suggests is that Kim has no intention of surrendering his nuclear weapons.”

Kim agreed at the June 12 summit to “work toward denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula,” but the joint statement released after the meeting gave no details on how or when Pyongyang might forsake its nuclear and missile programs.

As negotiations progress, the North could try to trade sites and technology that have relatively low values in exchange for sanctions relief, while covertly operating facilities required to advance key capabilities, Narang said.

“It is perfectly rational for North Korea to shift the emphasis to developing solid fuel missiles now that it already has a suite of liquid fuel missiles to deter an attack,” he said.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) arrive to sign a document to acknowledge the progress of the talks and pledge to keep momentum going, after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore, June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un (L) arrive to sign a document to acknowledge the progress of the talks and pledge to keep momentum going, after their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore, June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

TRUST BUT VERIFY

Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist and Stanford University professor, has predicted it would take around 10 years to dismantle and clean up a substantial part of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site.

U.S. intelligence is not certain how many nuclear warheads North Korea has. The Defense Intelligence Agency is at the high end with an estimate of about 50, but all the agencies believe Pyongyang is concealing an unknown number, especially smaller tactical ones, in caves and other underground facilities around the country.

The U.S. intelligence agencies believe North Korea has increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites in recent months and may try to hide these while seeking concessions in nuclear talks with the United States, NBC News quoted U.S. officials as saying on Friday.

The Washington Post reported on Saturday that U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that North Korea does not intend to fully give up its nuclear arsenal and is considering ways to hide the number of weapons it has. It also reported Pyongyang has secret production facilities, according to the latest evidence they have.

Bolton refused to comment on intelligence matters but the United States was going into nuclear negotiations aware of Pyongyang’s failure to live up to its promises in the past.

“There’s not any starry-eyed feeling among the group doing this,” he said. “We’re well aware of what the North Koreans have done in the past.”

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in WASHINGTON and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Lindsay Dunsmuir, Howard Schneider, John Walcott, Soyoung Kim; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Nick Zieminski, Michael Perry and Lincoln Feast.)

Chemical arms watchdog wins right to assign blame for attacks

The logo of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is seen during a special session in the Hague, Netherlands June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The world’s chemical weapons watchdog won new powers on Wednesday to assign blame for attacks with banned toxic munitions, a diplomatic victory for Britain just months after a former Russian spy was poisoned on its territory.

In a special session, member states of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted in favor of a British-led proposal by a 82-24 margin, easily reaching the two-thirds majority needed for it to succeed.

The motion was supported by the United States and European Union, but opposed by Russia, Iran, Syria and their allies.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the vote would empower the OPCW “not just to identify the use of chemical weapons but also the to point the finger at the organization, the state that they think is responsible.”

“That’s crucial if we are going to deter the use of these vile weapons.”

Russia said that the vote called the future of the organization itself into question.

“The OPCW is a Titanic which is leaking and has started to sink,” Industry Minister Georgy Kalamanov told reporters.

“A lot of the countries that voted against the measure are starting to think about how the organization will exist and function in the future,” he told reporters.

Though the use of chemical weapons is illegal under international law, the taboo on deploying them has been eroding after their repeated use in the Syrian civil war, but also in Iraq, Malaysia and Britain since 2012.

The poisoning of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March led to tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats by Moscow and the West and was one reason for Britain’s push to strengthen the OPCW. Russia has denied any involvement in their poisoning.

From 2015 to 2017 a joint United Nations-OPCW team had been appointed to assign blame for chemical attacks in Syria. It found that Syrian government troops used nerve agent sarin and chorine barrel bombs on several occasions, while Islamic State militants were found to have used sulfur mustard.

But at a deadlocked U.N. Security Council, the joint team was disbanded last year after Moscow used its veto to block several resolutions seeking to renew its mandate.

The British proposal declares the OPCW will be empowered to attribute blame for attacks, though details of how it will do so will still need to be further defined by the organizations’ members.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch. Additional reporting by Toby Sterling, Editing by Jon Boyle)

UK, allies: empower chemical arms watchdog to assign blame for attacks

British Minister of State for Defence Frederick Richard addresses a special session of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in the Hague, Netherlands June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Britain’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson called on Tuesday for all nations to vote to bolster the powers of the chemical weapons watchdog, saying it should be able to assign blame for attacks with banned poison munitions.

The United States and European Union said they would support a draft proposal made by the British delegation at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), while Russia and several of its allies opposed it.

“At present the OPCW’s experts can say where and when an attack happened, but not who was responsible,” Johnson told representatives of more than a hundred countries at a meeting in The Hague. “If we are serious about upholding the ban on chemical weapons that gap must be filled.”

A vote will be held on Wednesday. Decisions must win two-thirds of votes cast to be passed.

The British are seeking to re-galvanize support for an international ban on chemical weapons, which have been used repeatedly in the Syrian civil war. Banned chemicals have also been used by militants on the battlefield in Iraq in recent years, and are suspected in the poisoning of a half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last year in Malaysia and of a former KGB spy and his daughter in England this year.

Russia, Iran and Syria objected to the move and accused the British of breaking OPCW rules. The conference chairman said the British call for a vote was in line with procedures.

Western countries blame Syria’s government for using banned nerve gas in several attacks that killed large numbers of civilians. Russia and Iran are Syria’s main battlefield allies.

Russian representative Georgy Kalamanov called the British proposal “a clear attempt here to manipulate the mandate of the OPCW and to undermine the legal basis on which it stands, with which we fully disagree.”

“We should reflect very seriously on this proposal, and not allow it to undermine the fate of the OPCW,” he said.

The 20-year-old OPCW, which oversees a 1997 treaty banning the use of toxins as weapons, is a technical, scientific body which determines whether chemical weapons were used. It does not have the authority to identify perpetrators.

The British-led proposal was to be debated by roughly 140 countries at a special session of the OPCW that started on Tuesday. The draft proposal, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters, could thrust the OPCW to the front of a diplomatic confrontation between the West and Moscow which has seen relations deteriorate to their lowest point since the Cold War.

Russia and Indonesia submitted rival proposals, but Western diplomats said they were not believed to have strong political backing. Johnson called for other countries to reject them.

DOZENS KILLED

The meeting comes as OPCW inspectors prepare a report on an alleged poison attack in the Douma enclave near Damascus, Syria, in April that killed dozens and triggered retaliatory air strikes by the United States, France and Britain.

From 2015-2017 a joint United Nations-OPCW team known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) had been empowered to identify individuals or institutions behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria. The JIM confirmed that Syrian government troops used the nerve agent sarin and chorine barrel bombs on several occasions, while Islamic State militants were found to have used sulfur mustard.

But at a deadlocked U.N. Security Council, the JIM was disbanded last year, after Moscow used its veto to block several resolutions seeking to renew its mandate beyond November 2017.

“The widespread use of chemical weapons by Syria in particular threatens to undermine the treaty and the OPCW,” said Gregory Koblentz, a non-proliferation expert at George Mason University, in the United States. “Empowering the OPCW to identify perpetrators of chemical attacks is necessary to restoring the taboo against chemical weapons and the integrity of the chemical weapons disarmament regime.”

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Richard Balmforth, William Maclean)

Chlorine likely used in February attack in Idlib, Syria-weapons agency

A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, eastern Ghouta in Syria, after what a Syria medical relief group claims was a suspected chemical attack April, 7, 2018. Pcture taken April 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Banned chlorine munitions were likely dropped on a Syrian neighborhood in February, an international body on chemical weapons said on Wednesday, after laboratory tests confirmed the presence of the toxic chemical.

In its latest report on the systematic use of banned munitions in Syria’s civil war, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did not say which party was behind the attack on Saraqib, which lies in rebel-held territory in the province of Idlib.

But witnesses told OPCW investigators that the munitions were dropped in barrel bombs from a helicopter, a report released by the OPCW showed. Only Syrian government forces are known to have helicopters.

The report by the OPCW’s fact finding mission for Syria “determined that chlorine was released from cylinders by mechanical impact in the Al Talil neighborhood of Saraqib.”

About 11 people were treated after the attack on Feb. 4. for mild and moderate symptoms of toxic chemical exposure, including breathing difficulties, vomiting and unconsciousness, the report said.

Samples taken from the soil, canisters and impact sites tested positive for other chemicals, bearing the “markers of the Syrian regime,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a biological and chemical weapons expert working in Syria.

The samples tested positive for precursors needed to make the nerve agent sarin, he said.

“These chemicals were detected in previous sarin attacks, Khan Sheikhoun, East Ghouta and no doubt Douma,” Bretton-Gordon said.

The OPCW is also investigating a suspected chemical attack on April 7 in the Douma enclave near Damascus, which prompted missile strikes by the United States, France and Britain. Those findings are expected by the end of the month.

The conclusions on the Saraqib attack are based on the presence of two cylinders, which were determined as previously containing chlorine, witness testimony and environmental samples confirming “the unusual presence of chlorine”, it said.

A joint OPCW-U.N. mechanism for Syria has previously concluded the Syrian government has used both sarin nerve agent and chlorine, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians. Rebels were found to have used sulfur mustard once on a small scale.

Reuters reported in January that tests found “markers” in samples taken at three attack sites between 2013 and 2017 from chemicals from the Syrian government stockpile.

The lab tests linked Ghouta and two other nerve agent attack sites, in the towns of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate on April 4, 2017 and Khan al-Assal, Aleppo, in March 2013, to the stockpile handed over to the agency for destruction in 2014.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied using chemical weapons and instead has blamed rebels for staging attacks to falsely implicate his forces in the atrocities.

The mechanism was disbanded in November following a Russian veto at the U.N. Security Council, a move which ratcheted up tension between Moscow and Western powers over chemical weapons use in Syria.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, William Maclean)

Chemical weapons watchdog: inspectors have samples from Douma

FILE PHOTO: The United Nation vehicle carrying the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors is seen in Damascus, Syria April 17, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – A team of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) visited a site in Douma, Syria on Saturday to collect samples as it tries to determine whether such weapons were used there on April 7, the agency said.

In a statement, the OPCW said it would now evaluate and consider whether the team needs to make a second visit to Douma.

Samples will be transported back to the Netherlands and onward to the organization’s network of designated labs for analysis.

Based on the analysis of the sample results as well other information and materials collected by the team, the mission would compile a report and submit it to the organization’s member states, the statement said.

The OPCW has been investigating use of toxic chemicals in Syria’s civil war since 2014. Inspectors had been trying to reach Douma for several days but were delayed after an advance security detail was fired upon on April 17.

The OPCW team will attempt to determine whether chemical weapons were used and if so, which. It is not mandated to conclude which side in the conflict used them.

(Reporting by Toby Sterling; editing by Andrew Roche)