THE HAGUE: Russia and Syria have stalled access to Douma by chemical weapons experts seeking to probe an alleged poison gas attack citing security concerns, diplomats said , amid US fears that Moscow “may have tampered” with the site.
“The team has not yet been deployed to Douma,” the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Uzumcu, said at an emergency session in The Hague.
The closed-door talks at the global chemical watchdog’s headquarters came two days after a wave of punitive missile strikes by the US, Britain and France in Syria, in response to the alleged April 7 toxic arms attack on Douma.
The OPCW team had been expected to begin their fieldwork on Sunday, but they met with officials at their Damascus hotel instead.
Uzumcu said “Syrian and the Russian officials who participated in the preparatory meetings in Damascus” had informed the fact-finding mission “there were still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place”.
Evidence of chemical weapons can degrade quickly in the environment, and he urged the nine-member, all-volunteer team be allowed to deploy to Douma “as quickly as possible”.
But the American ambassador to the OPCW claimed the Russians may have already visited the site.
“We are concerned they may have tampered with it with the intent of thwarting the efforts of the OPCW fact-finding mission,” said ambassador Ken Ward.
The Kremlin however dismissed the claims.
“I can guarantee that Russia has not tampered with the site,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the BBC.
A spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said the allegations were “groundless”, adding Moscow favoured “an impartial investigation”.
The missiles that US, French and British warships fired on suspected chemical facilities on Saturday constituted the biggest Western attack against the regime in the seven-year war to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The targeted sites were largely empty, and were all said to be facilities for chemical weapons storage or production.
The trio of Western powers that carried out the strikes warned they would repeat the operation if Damascus used chemical weapons again, while Putin warned any fresh strikes would “provoke chaos”.
Focus was however shifting to renewed diplomatic action, with a new resolution to be debated at the UN Security Council on Monday.
The attack on Douma, in which most experts say chlorine as well as an agent such as sarin were used, killed at least 40 people, according to local medics.
Trump’s 2016 campaign didn’t conspire with Russia, finds Mueller report
Washington: US Attorney General William Barr has said Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not find proof that Donald Trump or his campaign conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential elections, following which the US president claimed “complete and total exoneration”.
In his four-page letter to the Congress, which was later made public, Brar however said that “while this (Mueller’s) report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him” and sets out evidence on “both sides of the question”.
The investigation had cast a shadow over the Trump presidency for nearly two years with the Democratic leadership alleging that Russian interference helped him in the 2016 polls.
Barr said that Mueller found no proof of such a conspiracy “despite multiple offers from Russia-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign”.
“The special counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election,” the attorney general said.
Mueller, in his report, “did not draw a conclusion – one way or the other – as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction”, Barr told the lawmakers.
“For each of the relevant actions investigated, the report sets out evidence on both sides of the question and leaves unresolved what the special counsel views as ‘difficult issues’ of law and fact concerning whether the president’s actions and intent could be viewed as obstruction,” Barr said, adding Mueller “ultimately determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment”.
In the letter, he also said the Department of Justice has determined that there is not sufficient evidence to establish that Trump committed obstruction of justice.
“After reviewing the special counsel’s final report on these issues; consulting with department officials, including the Office of Legal Counsel; and applying the principles of federal prosecution that guide our charging decisions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the special counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense,” the letter read.
“The special counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election,” it said, adding, “the report identifies no actions that, in our judgement, constitute obstructive conduct.”
Pak PM orders probe into alleged forced conversion, underage marriages of two Hindu girls
Islamabad: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has ordered a probe into reports of alleged abduction, forced conversion and underage marriages of two teenage Hindu girls in Sindh province and to take immediate steps for their recovery, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said on Sunday.
The two girls, Raveena (13) and Reena (15), were allegedly kidnapped by a group of “influential” men from their home in Ghotki district in Sindh on the eve of Holi.
Soon after the kidnapping, a video went viral in which a cleric was purportedly shown soleminising the Nikah (marriage) of the two girls. In a separate video, the minor girls can be seen saying that they accepted Islam of their own free will.
In a Twitter post in Urdu on Sunday, Information Minister Chaudhry said that the prime minister has asked the Sindh chief minister to look into reports that the girls in question have been taken to Rahim Yar Khan in Punjab.
Chaudhry said the prime minister has also ordered the Sindh and Punjab governments to devise a joint action plan in light of the incident, and to take concrete steps to prevent such incidents from happening again.
“The minorities in Pakistan make up the white of our flag and all of our flag’s colours are precious to us. Protection of our flag is our duty,” he said.
On Saturday, Chaudhry said that the government had taken notice of reports of the forced conversion and underage marriages of the two girls.
The Hindu community in Pakistan has carried out massive demonstrations calling for strict action to be taken against those responsible, while reminding Prime Minister Khan of his promises to the minorities of the country.
Last year, Khan during his election campaign had said his party’s agenda was to uplift the various religious groups across Pakistan and said they would take effective measures to prevent forced marriages of Hindu girls.
Sanjesh Dhanja, President of Pakistan Hindu Sewa Welfare Trust, an NGO, earlier urged Prime Minister Khan to take note of the incident and prove to everyone that minorities were indeed safe and secure in Pakistan.
“The truth is minorities suffer from different sorts of persecution and the problem of young Hindu girls being kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to convert to Islam or get married to much older men is widespread in Sindh,” he said.
Dhanja said the Hindu community had staged several sit-ins in Ghotki district after which police reluctantly registered FIR against the accused persons. The Hindu community leaders have claimed that the accused belonged to the Kohbar and Malik tribes in the area.
Following the incident, an FIR was filed by the girls’ brother, alleging that their father had an altercation with the accused sometime ago and on the eve of Holi they armed with pistols forcibly entered their home and took the sisters away.
A Pakistan Muslim League-Functional MPA Nand Kumar Goklani, who had initially moved a bill against forced conversions, urged the government to get the law passed immediately.
Hindus form the biggest minority community in Pakistan. According to official estimates, 75 lakh Hindus live in Pakistan. However, according to the community, over 90 lakh Hindus are living in the country. Majority of Pakistan’s Hindu population is settled in Sindh province where they share culture, traditions and language with their Muslim fellows.
ISIS terrorists emerge from tunnels to surrender to US forces after Caliphate fails
Baghouz: Dozens of ISIS group militants emerged from tunnels to surrender to US-backed forces in eastern Syria , a day after their “caliphate” was declared defeated.
Syria’s Kurds warned that despite the demise of the proto-state, the thousands of foreign militants they have detained are a time-bomb the world urgently needs to defuse.
An AFP reporter saw dozens of people — mostly men — file out of the battered encampment in the remote village of Baghouz near the Iraqi border to board pickup trucks.
“They are IS fighters who came out of tunnels and surrendered today,” Kurdish spokesman Jiaker Amed said.
Some sported thick beards and wore long woollen kaftans over their dark-coloured robes, or a chequered scarf around their faces, as they trudged out of their final hideout under the drizzle.
“Some others could still be hiding inside,” said Amed.
World leaders were quick to hail Saturday’s announcement by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that the last shred of land controlled by ISIS in Syria had been conquered.
But the top foreign affairs official for the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region warned the members captured during the assault still posed a threat.
“There are thousands of fighters, children and women and from 54 countries, not including Iraqis and Syrians, who are a serious burden and danger for us and for the international community,” Abdel Karim Omar told AFP.
“Numbers increased massively during the last 20 days of the Baghouz operation,” he said.
He also warned of the continuing danger posed by ISIS sleeper cells.
The SDF is continuing to carry out operations to rout out any remaining terrorists in the area and uncover possible weapons caches.
“This back-clearance operation will be deliberate and thorough and help ensure the long-term security for the area,” the US-led coalition backing the SDF wrote on Twitter.
As the SDF’s months-long assault closed in against the last ISIS strongholds in the Euphrates Valley, terrorists and their families gradually gathered in Baghouz.
While some managed to escape, many foreigners stayed behind, either surrendering or fighting to the death.