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Chemical arms probe in Syria stalls over ‘security’ fears

Monitor News Bureau

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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.


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International

‘Aid to Pak will remain suspended,’ says US

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Washington: Ahead of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to the United States, a Congressional report has said that the security assistance to Pakistan would remain suspended pending “decisive and irreversible” action against terrorist groups.

At the direction of US President Donald Trump, the United States had suspended all its security assistance to Pakistan in January 2018. This is first high-level visit by a Pakistani Prime Minster to the White House during the Trump administration.

“Pakistan is a haven for numerous Islamist extremist and terrorist groups, and successive Pakistani governments are widely believed to have tolerated and even supported some of these as proxies in Islamabad’s historical conflicts with its neighbours,” the independent Congressional Research Service (CRS) said in a latest report on Pakistan.

 

The CRS is an independent and bipartisan research wing of the US Congress, which prepares periodic reports on issues of interest for lawmakers to make informed decisions. Its reports are prepared by eminent experts of the field and are not considered as an official view of the US Congress.

The latest CRS report told lawmakers that the 2011 revelation that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had enjoyed years-long refuge in Pakistan led to intensive US government scrutiny of the bilateral relationship. It also sparked congressional questioning of the wisdom of providing significant aid to a nation that may not have the intention or capacity to be an effective partner.

The Trump administration has taken a harder line on Pakistan than its predecessors, sharply cutting assistance and suspending security-related aid, said the CRS report dated July 15.

“The United States continues to press for decisive and irreversible action against externally-focused terror groups and UN-designated terrorist organizations operating from its territory,” it said. “Pending such action, security assistance will remain suspended.”

During a September 2018 visit to Islamabad amidst talk of a “reset” of bilateral ties, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed hope that the US could find common ground with Pakistan’s new leadership, but mutual distrust was seen to be pervasive in the relationship and American leverage was much reduced.

In mid-2017, the administration announced that it would “pause” disbursement of USD 255 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and announced a broader security aid suspension in January 2018. According to the State Department, about USD 790 million in unobligated FMF dating back to 2001 is affected.

Pakistani politicians and analysts of all stripes decried what they perceived as an effort to scapegoat their country for US policy failures in Afghanistan.

The administration’s 2020 budget request for assistance to Pakistan totals about USD 70 million, including USD 48 million for economic and development aid.

Noting that numerous indigenous terrorist groups operate on or from Pakistani territoryor areas under its occupation, many designated as ‘Foreign Terrorist Organisations’ under the US law, the CRS said incidents of domestic terrorism decreased since the Pakistan Army launched major operations in 2014.

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Trump says US Navy ‘destroyed’ Iranian drone

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WASHINGTON: The United States said that a US Navy ship had “destroyed” an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz after the aircraft threatened the vessel, but Iran said it had no information about losing a drone.

In the latest episode to stir tensions in the Gulf, US President Donald Trump told an event at the White House that the drone had flown to within 1,000 yards (metres) of the USS Boxer and had ignored “multiple calls to stand down.”

“This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters. The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, facilities and interests,” Trump said. “The drone was immediately destroyed,” he added.

 

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters at the United Nations: “We have no information about losing a drone today.”

The Pentagon said in a statement that the USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, had taken “defensive action” against a drone on Thursday morning as the Boxer was moving into the Strait of Hormuz.

“We do assess it was an Iranian drone,” said Commander Rebecca Rebarich, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

Tensions in the Gulf region are high, with fears that the United States and Iran could stumble into war.

The United States has blamed Iran for a series of attacks since mid-May on shipping around the Strait of Hormuz, the world`s most important oil artery. Tehran rejects the allegations.

Iran in June shot down a US military surveillance drone in the Gulf with a surface-to-air missile. Iran says the drone was in its airspace, but Washington says it was in international skies.

Trump said at the time the United States had come close to launching a military strike on Iran in retaliation for the downing of the US drone.

The increased use of drones by Iran and its allies for surveillance and attacks across the Middle East is raising alarms in Washington.

The United States believes that Iran-linked militia in Iraq have recently increased their surveillance of American troops and bases in the country by using off-the-shelf, commercially available drones, U.S. officials say.

A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the drone on Thursday was brought down through electronic jamming.

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‘More for more,’ says Iran Foreign Minister; makes nuclear offer to US

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Washington: Iran signalled a willingness to engage in diplomacy to defuse tensions with the United States with a modest offer on its nuclear programme that met immediate scepticism in Washington.

Iran’s Foreign Minister told reporters in New York that Iran could immediately ratify a document prescribing more intrusive inspections of its nuclear programme if the United States abandoned its economic sanctions, media organisations reported.

The document, known as the Additional Protocol, gives UN inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) more tools to verify that a nuclear programme is peaceful.

 

While US officials suggested they viewed the idea as a non-starter, analysts said it could provide an opening for US President Donald Trump’s administration to pursue diplomacy.

The Iran nuclear agreement. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Monday that Iran has exceeded a limit on its enriched uranium reserves set by a 2015 nuclear deal, semi-official news agency ISNA reported.

“If Trump wants more for more, we can ratify the Additional Protocol and he can lift the sanctions he set,” the Guardian newspaper quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as telling reporters.

However, since Iran is already implementing the protocol and has often offered in the past to ratify it, it was not clear that Zarif’s proposal constituted much of a concession.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal agreed to by Tehran, Iran must seek ratification of the protocol eight years after the deal was adopted. That would be the same time that the United States must seek permanent termination of many of its sanctions on Iran.

US officials responded sceptically, suggesting it was a disingenuous effort to get sanctions relief.

“Their whole game is to try to get any sanctions relief they can while maintaining the ability to get a nuclear weapon in the future,” said an official on condition of anonymity, saying Iran was “trying to spin a small action into” something bigger.

The official noted that under the offer, Iran would keep enriching uranium, a process that can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, and would do nothing to rein in its support for regional proxies in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

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