Middle East

Russia rejects ‘absurd’ chemical weapons claims as watchdog launches Syria probe

A Syria child receives treatment for a suspected chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta on Sunday (AFP)

Russia's top diplomat on Wednesday rejected all notion and evidence of the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons, rejecting them as "absurd claims" by enemies of Damascus bent on "anti-Syrian political engineering".

Sergei Lavrov's comments at the UN-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva came a day after the international chemical weapons watchdog, the OPCW, said it was launching an investigation into claims the Syrian government had dropped chlorine gas during its intense week-long bombardment of Eastern Ghouta.

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Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said the US and its allies were "simply exploiting baseless allegations of toxic weapons use by Damascus as a tool of anti-Syrian political engineering".

He rejected claims that the assault on Eastern Ghouta, which has killed at least 500 civilians, was worsening the state of the Syrian war.

"I don’t think it’s getting worse. It’s getting worse for the terrorists from Jabhat al-Nusra, who willingly or unwillingly have been sustainably spared by the American coalition," he said.

The Syrian represenative at the conference, Hussam Edin Aala, later stated: "Syria cannot possibly be using chemical weapons because it very simply has none in its possession."

Russia brokered an international deal in 2014 to remove all chemical weapons from Syria after a sarin gas attack on Eastern Ghouta killed thousands of people.

However, there have been frequent reports of gas attacks since the country was declared free of the weapons, including a sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun last year

A US official attacked Moscow for failing to prevent the Assad government from using them, and said Russia's defence of the Syrian president put it on "the wrong side of history".

Fighting intensified on Wednesday in Eastern Ghouta, the besieged enclave near Damascus, as Syrian government forces clashed with rebels, despite a five-hour daily "humanitarian pause" announced by Russia earlier this week.

Before it took effect again on Wednesday, Syrian forces also pounded Eastern Ghouta with air strikes and artillery fire, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

A government-led offensive on the rebel-held area which began nine days ago has killed at least 500 people.

Speaking ahead of the foreign minister's comments, Robert Wood, US disarmament ambassador, told reporters that Russia had violated its commitments as a guarantor of the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.

“Russia is on the wrong side of history with regard to chemical weapons use in Syria,” Wood said.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemicals Weapons (OPCW) has launched an investigation into attacks in the besieged enclave to determine whether banned munitions had been used, diplomatic sources told Reuters.

The investigation includes an attack on Sunday which health authorities said killed a child and caused symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine gas, the news agency reported.

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