BEIRUT -- Assailants opened fire on a United Nations security team visiting the site of a suspected chemical-weapons attack in Syria, an official said Wednesday, forcing the team to retreat to its base and further delaying a fact-finding mission by outside experts to examine the claims.
Gunmen shot at the U.N. team in Douma on Tuesday and detonated an explosive, leading the team to return to Damascus, said Ahmet Uzumcu, the head of the international chemical-weapons watchdog. He did not identify the assailants.
Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have been waiting since Saturday to visit Douma, the site of the reported April 7 attack. They were initially blocked by the Syrian government and its ally, Russia, on Monday. Then on Tuesday, the advance security team from the U.N. came under fire, compounding the delays. The watchdog's inspectors have not yet been able to visit the site, and Uzumcu did not say when they would deploy.
The U.N. said more security measures were needed before the inspectors could go in.
"There is still a lot of volatility in the area," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, adding that the U.N. security team needed to make at least another visit before the fact-finding mission could go ahead.
The town is under the protection of Russia's military police. The Russian military said a Syrian security employee was slightly wounded in the crossfire Tuesday, but no Russian servicemen were at the site of the attack.
Journalists visiting Douma on a government-organized tour Monday did not report any security threats. The Associated Press met with residents who said they were overwhelmed by chlorine fumes on the night of the purported attack, and lost their loved ones.
With 11 days now having passed, concerns are growing that evidence could fall prey to tampering or be otherwise compromised.
In response, the opposition's Syrian Civil Defense, whose first responders were operating in Douma on the night of the reported attack, gave the chemical-weapons watchdog the locations of victims' graves so it could salvage evidence, said the group's chief, Raed Saleh. The Civil Defense no longer has a presence in Douma after being evacuated to rebel-held areas of northern Syria when the government took over the town. The government says the Civil Defense is a terrorist organization.
Russia and the Syrian government have denied responsibility for the deployment of any chemical, which reportedly took place during a government attack on the then rebel-held town. The Army of Islam surrendered Douma two days later.
The U.S., which has drawn its own conclusions about the attack on Douma, has accused the Syrian government and Russia of trying to cover up evidence of their culpability.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the evidence was at risk of being tampered with as the delays dragged on.
"We are very much aware of the delay that the regime imposed on that delegation. But we are also very much aware of how they have operated in the past. ... In other words, using the pause after a strike like that to try to clean up the evidence before the investigation team gets in," Mattis said.
The U.S., France and Britain struck against suspected chemical-weapons facilities belonging to the Syrian government Saturday, after concluding that Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces were behind the attack, though they have not made that evidence public.
Russia has accused the rebels of staging the attack with support from Britain, an allegation that Britain has denied. Russia's military said Tuesday that it had uncovered a chemical stockpile left behind by the rebels in Douma. The claim could not be independently verified.
First responders and activists say more than 40 people were killed the night of the attack, many found with foam around their mouths, a sign of suffocation. Medical workers said they treated symptoms including difficulty breathing and fainting.
If confirmed, it would not be the first chemical attack in Syria's more than 7-year-old civil war. The U.N.-mandated Independent International Commission on Syria has documented more than 30 chemical attacks in Syria between 2013 and the end of 2017 -- and says at least 25 of them were carried out by the Syrian military. For the rest, it had insufficient evidence to determine the perpetrator. Most involved chlorine gas.
Also Wednesday, Trump said he would impose additional sanctions on Russia when needed, bristling at the notion that he had backed away from a new round of penalties associated with alleged Russian help for Syrian chemical-weapons production.
Trump spoke at a news conference alongside visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and the two men had already shaken hands to close the session when Trump returned to the microphone to answer a question about whether he had canceled or delayed a new round of sanctions.
"We'll do the sanctions when they very much deserve it," Trump said.
"There's been nobody tougher on Russia than President Donald Trump."
PUTIN EASES UP
In Russia, meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin is seeking to dial down the tension with the U.S., four people familiar with the matter said. One said the Kremlin has ordered officials to curb their anti-U.S. rhetoric.
The moves come as U.S. sanctions have crippled a Russian industry and airstrikes in Syria threatened the first direct clash between nuclear superpowers since the Cold War.
Putin's decision explains why lawmakers Monday suddenly pulled a draft law that would have imposed sweeping countersanctions on U.S. companies, said two of the people, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. The relatively limited nature of the weekend attacks on alleged chemical-weapons facilities in Syria was seen as a positive sign in the Kremlin, considering President Donald Trump's ominous tweets announcing missiles would soon be flying.
"Putin is ready to make numerous, deep concessions, but he has to appear like he's not losing," said Igor Bunin of the Center for Political Technologies, a consultancy whose clients include Kremlin staff. "He understands Russia can't compete with the West economically and he doesn't plan to go to war with the West."
A Foreign Ministry official in Moscow said Wednesday that the Trump administration notified Russia's Embassy in Washington on Sunday that new sanctions would be coming in the near future.
The Kremlin is still coming to grips with the economic impact of the most punitive penalties the U.S. has imposed since first sanctioning Russia four years ago, over the conflict in Ukraine. The latest measures, which the Treasury Department called payback for Putin's "malign activity" in general, hit one of the country's most powerful businessmen, billionaire Oleg Deripaska, the hardest.
Shares of Deripaska's aluminum giant Rusal have plunged about 70 percent in Hong Kong since the U.S. essentially banned the company from the dollar economy April 6, erasing about $6 billion of value and threatening 100,000 jobs at a time when Russia is limping out of its longest recession in two decades. Putin, who is to be sworn in for what may be a final six-year term next month, is keen to avoid having another major company suffer a similar fate.
It could be too late to reverse the downward spiral that has taken relations to the lowest level in decades. While Trump is open to trying to improve ties, Congress and much of his administration are committed to keeping the pressure up on a country many view as America's No. 1 enemy after allegations of Kremlin meddling in the 2016 elections.
Further complicating the diplomatic dance are the often-conflicting signals coming from the White House. Trump's reported decision Monday to put the brakes on new Russian sanctions triggered a brief rally in the ruble, which fell the most since June 2015 last week. On Tuesday, for example, economic adviser Larry Kudlow spooked Russian markets when he said "additional sanctions are under consideration."
Still, the Kremlin is holding back from further escalation.
On Monday, legislators abandoned -- at least for now -- a bill that would have limited a broad range of trade with the U.S., from farm products and medications to aviation and space.
One of the most outspoken critics of the Pentagon, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, said a proposed ban on selling rocket engines "would hurt Russia more than the U.S." because of Moscow's dependence on American contracts.
Information for this article was contributed by Philip Issa, Michael Corder, Zeina Karam, Edith M. Lederer and Robert Burns of The Associated Press; by Ilya Arkhipov, Evgenia Pismennaya, Stepan Kravchenko, Henry Meyer and Ksenia Galouchko of Bloomberg News; and by Anne Gearan of The Washington Post.
A Section on 04/19/2018
Print Headline: U.N. team faced gunfire in Syria; Gas-probe site called unsafe