BEIRUT — International inspectors entered the Syrian town where an alleged chemical attack was carried out earlier this month, Syrian state media reported Tuesday, after delays by Syrian and Russian authorities.
A fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is investigating reports that government forces launched a chemical attack on April 7 during the final stages of their campaign to retake the town from rebels. The alleged attack, which Syrian activists say killed more than 40 people, prompted punitive U.S.-led airstrikes.
Syria and its ally Russia deny any chemical attack took place, and Russian officials accused Britain of staging a "fake" gas attack in the town. British Prime Minister Theresa May says Syria and Russia — whose forces now control the town east of Damascus — are trying to cover up evidence.
Journalists were allowed access to the suspected attack sites on Monday, but the OPCW said Syrian and Russian authorities blocked their inspectors.
The Associated Press spoke to survivors and witnesses who described being hit by gas. Several said a strange smell started spreading and people screamed, "It's chlorine! It's chlorine!"
The U.S. and France say they have evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces used poison gas in the attack, but they have not yet provided that to the public.
Douma was the last rebel-held town near Damascus, and the target of a government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds of people and displaced tens of thousands.
The lack of access to Douma has left unanswered questions about the attack earlier this month. OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said Syrian and Russian officials cited "pending security issues" in keeping inspectors from reaching Douma.
"The team has not yet deployed to Douma," Uzumcu told an executive council meeting of the OPCW in The Hague on Monday.
Instead, Syrian authorities offered them 22 people to interview as witnesses, he said, adding that he hoped "all necessary arrangements will be made ... to allow the team to deploy to Douma as soon as possible."
Earlier Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the inspectors could not go to the site because they needed approval from the U.N. Department for Safety and Security. He denied that Russia was hampering the mission and suggested the approval was held up because of the Western airstrikes.
However, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the United Nations had provided all the necessary clearances for the team to visit Douma.