UN Department of Safety and Security says it is discussing security with the regime and Russia after an advance team came under fire. The team was in Douma, site of a suspected gas attack that triggered US-led strikes, ahead of an OPCW visit.

Syrian regime forces on the outskirts of Douma, eastern Ghouta, Syria. April 8, 2018.
Syrian regime forces on the outskirts of Douma, eastern Ghouta, Syria. April 8, 2018. (AFP)

UN security experts say they are negotiating with the Syrian regime and Russian authorities for international chemical inspectors to deploy to the site of an alleged toxic gas attack near Damascus, after a reconnaissance mission came under fire.

The team from the world's chemical arms watchdog – the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – has not yet been able to begin its field work in Douma, where dozens were killed in a suspected April 7 gas attack, as Western powers warn that regime leader Bashar al Assad may attempt to remove crucial evidence.

The United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) said it was trying to make arrangements for the fact-finding experts to travel to Douma "at the earliest possible time," according to a report to the Security Council obtained by AFP news agency on Wednesday.

TRT World's Alaattin Kilic reports.

"UNDSS in Damascus is now engaged in further discussions and co-ordination with representatives of the Syrian Arab Republic [Assad regime] and the Russian military police on how to enhance and reinforce security arrangements in specific locations in Douma," it said.

According to the UN, a security team travelled to two sites on Tuesday escorted by Russian military police.

At the second location, "there was an explosion followed by small-arms fire directed at (the) UNDSS team and the Russian military police," the UN said, adding that the advance team had returned safely to Damascus.

OPCW chief Ahmet Uzumcu said the incident highlighted "the highly volatile environment" in which the fact-finding team had to work.

He added he would only consider deploying the team to Douma with UNDSS approval and if the inspectors had "unhindered access to the sites."

Safety fears hinder investigation

The OPCW team arrived in Syria just hours after US-led strikes on regime targets on Saturday, launched in response to the alleged gas attack.

But the watchdog said that safety fears had hampered plans for the experts to travel to Douma, a town that was controlled by rebels until Russian-backed regime forces fully retook it last week.

The United States, France and Britain accuse Assad's forces of carrying out the suspected chemical attack, but Russia and Syria deny toxic gas was used in Douma.

Syria's UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari told the Security Council on Tuesday that the OPCW experts would begin their investigation once they received the all-clear from the UN team.

Mission in limbo

Assad's regime in February launched a blistering assault on eastern Ghouta, a semi-rural area within mortar range of central Damascus that had been in rebel hands for six years.

Fighters from the militant group Jaish al Islam held out in the enclave's main town of Douma, but the group accused the regime of forcing them to accept a deal to leave the area by deploying chemical munitions in the April 7 attack.

Video footage, purportedly of the aftermath, shocked the world, with harrowing testimony from medics of victims gasping for air and frothing at the mouth.

It prompted a co-ordinated wave of missile strikes by the United States, France and Britain against regime targets on April 14.

Syria's ally Russia was given prior notice and the missiles struck mostly empty buildings, in what many analysts saw as a hollow move that allowed all sides to save face.

'Hiding evidence' claims

The "White Helmets," a Syrian rescue force that works in opposition-held areas, said it was working closely with the OPCW inspectors.

"We provided information on the burial place of those killed in the chemical attack," its chief Raed Saleh said.

The White Helmets and local medics were the main sources of information in the wake of the alleged chemical attack.

Another member of the organisation said he was worried proof that toxic substances had been used was being tampered with, particularly the burial site.

Top Jaish al Islam official Mohammad Alloush accused the regime on Wednesday of "erasing proof of the chemical (attack) in Douma."

He specifically accused them of "storming cemeteries in search of the victims of chemical substances."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies