Russian denials of Syria chemical attack undermined by inquiry  

Russian claims that the UN weapons watchdog manipulated evidence of a Syrian government chemical weapons attack have been undermined by an official inquiry. (File/AFP)
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Updated 08 February 2020

Russian denials of Syria chemical attack undermined by inquiry  

  • More than 40 people were killed in Douma on Apr. 7, 2018
  • The OPCW’s chief told the organization’s member states that the two individuals “could not accept that their views were not backed by evidence”

LONDON: Russian claims that the UN weapons watchdog manipulated evidence of a Syrian government chemical weapons attack have been undermined by an official inquiry showing that two former UN employees hailed as whistleblowers had little direct access to the evidence and exaggerated their roles. 
The independent inquiry commissioned by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) shows that one of the two employees had never been on the team investigating the April 2018 attack in Douma and the other was only on the team for a brief period, according to report in The Guardian newspaper. 
More than 40 people were killed in Douma on Apr. 7, 2018. The town, on the outskirts of Damascus, was held by rebels and besieged by pro-government forces at the time. Civilians claimed they were the victims of a chemical weapon attack.
A week after the alleged attack, US President Donald Trump responded with overnight air strikes on Syria backed by the UK and France.  
Russia immediately launched a campaign to discredit the allegations, flying witnesses from Syria to the OPCW headquarters in the Hague to challenge the claim that chemical weapons had been used.
Following the US strikes, the OPCW opened an inquiry into whether chemical weapons had been used, but without attributing responsibility. It ruled in March 2019 that a banned toxic chemical containing chlorine was likely to have been used in Douma. The fact that chemical weapons were delivered through air strikes effectively meant the OPCW believed the Syrian air force was responsible.
Internal OPCW reports questioning whether chemical weapons had been used were leaked last May, raising questions about manipulation of the OPCW by the West.
However, an OPCW inquiry into the leaks published last week found the authors of the internal reports had only a minor supporting role in the Douma team.
Fernando Arias, the OPCW chief, told the organization’s member states on Thursday that the two individuals were “not whistleblowers,” but rather “individuals who could not accept that their views were not backed by evidence.”
He said that the two men, referred to in the report as Inspector A and B, had breached their commitments to the organization, adding that their behavior was even more deplorable since they had incomplete information on the investigation.
The official inquiry said: “Inspector A did not have access to all the documents, witness interviews, laboratory tests and analyzes by independent experts.” 
It also said he never compiled an official OPCW report, and only wrote a personal document created with incomplete information.
“Inspector B was by contrast on the fact-finding mission and did travel to Damascus in April, but never left the command post because he had not completed the necessary training required to be deployed on-site in Douma,” the inquiry added. “He left the OPCW in August, but continued to approach staff members in an effort to have continued access to and influence over the Douma incident. The majority of the fact-finding team’s work was carried out after he left the organization.”
The two men declined to take part in the investigation, which instead met with 29 witnesses between July 2019 and February 2020.
Both individuals may face legal action.


UN says breakthrough achieved in Libya transition talks

Updated 7 min 2 sec ago

UN says breakthrough achieved in Libya transition talks

  • Talks in Geneva have been taking place amid a heavy international push to reach a peaceful settlement to Libya’s civil war
  • The US welcomed the breakthrough and urged all parties of Libya “to work with urgency and in good faith”

CAIRO: The top UN official for Libya said Saturday that an advisory committee for representatives of Libya’s different regions has proposed a way forward for choosing a transitional government that would lead the war-torn country to elections late this year.
The talks in Geneva, structured around the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, have been taking place amid a heavy international push to reach a peaceful settlement to Libya’s civil war. Previous diplomatic initiatives have all collapsed.
UN acting envoy for Libya Stephanie Williams told a news conference in Geneva that the advisory committee’s members “have met their responsibility with a constructive spirit, cooperative efforts, and a great deal of patriotism.”
The committee is part of a 75-member forum that represents all the three main regions of Libya. The 18-member committee has proposed that each region’s electoral college name a representative to a three-member presidential council, Williams said. A prime minister would be chosen by the 75-member forum. A successful nominee should receive 70% of votes.
Williams said that the forum would resort to lists formed from Libya’s three regions, with each list consisting of four names, nominated for the presidential council and a prime minister position.
She said a list should obtain 17 endorsements: eight from the western region, six from the eastern region and three from southern Libya. The wining list should receive 60% of the votes of the 75-member forum in the first round. A run-up is expected if no list received the required votes, she said.
Williams said the forum would vote on the proposed mechanism on Monday and the results are expected the following day.
The transitional government would be “a temporary unified executive staffed by Libyan patriots who want to share responsibility rather than to divide the cake,” the UN acting envoy said.
The US welcomed the breakthrough and urged all parties of Libya “to work with urgency and in good faith” to establish an interim government, according to a statement by the US Embassy in Libya.
“It is time to move past the conflict and corruption facilitated by the status quo,” it said.
The forum is part of the UN efforts to end the chaos that engulfed the oil-rich North African nation after the 2011 overthrow and killing of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. It has reached an agreement last year to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Dec. 24, 2021.
The oil-rich country is now split east to west between two rival administrations, each backed by an array of militias and foreign powers.
The warring sides agreed to a UN-brokered cease-fire in October in Geneva, a deal that included the departure of foreign forces and mercenaries from Libya within three months.
No progress was announced on the issue of foreign forces and mercenaries since they inked the cease-fire deal almost two months ago.