Britain and France have angrily accused Russia of a "despicable" stunt after Moscow brought a series of alleged witnesses to what it claims was a "staged" Syrian gas attack before the international chemical weapons watchdog.
Russian and Syrian officials held a briefing at The Hague headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) where they produced a number of Syrians who, they said, appeared in a video of the suspected attack on the rebel-held town of Douma on April 7.
The joint briefing of the Russian Federation 🇷🇺 and the Syrian Arab Republic 🇸🇾 has started at the #OPCW. All national delegations were invited to this unique event with the participation of real witnesses of staged “chemical attack” in Douma. pic.twitter.com/u3Ata9ik0a— Russian Embassy in NL🇷🇺🇳🇱 (@rusembassynl) April 26, 2018
The Kremlin claims the incident - which led the US, Britain and France to launch punitive missile strikes against a series of Syria regime targets - was faked by the White Helmets search and rescue group.
Britain's ambassador to the OPCW, Peter Wilson, who boycotted the briefing along with other Western allies, said it was a deliberate attempt by the Russians undermine the work of OPCW inspectors who are trying to establish what happened in Douma.
He strongly condemned the Russian description of Syrians who appeared in the video footage as "unwitting comedians" and said reports of widespread intimidation of witnesses to the incident were a matter of "real concern".
Why we’re not going to Russia and Syria’s briefing at the #OPCW today:
“It’s a stunt. The Director General has opposed Russia’s decision to host this briefing.”April 26, 2018
Britain has said up to 75 people died in the incident which it and other Western powers blame on the regime of President Bashar Assad.
"The OPCW is not a theatre," Mr Wilson said. "Russia's decision to misuse it is yet another Russian attempt to undermine the OPCW's work, and in particular the work of its fact finding mission investigating chemical weapons use in Syria.
"Describing chemical weapons victims as 'comedians' is despicable. It shows the utter disregard Russia and Syria have for the suffering of the Syrian people, and indeed the global norm against chemical weapons use.
"The director general (of the OPCW) has asked states to supply information about the Douma attack to his fact finding mission. Russia and Syria should do so, instead of waging a propaganda campaign of misinformation."
His comments were echoed by the French ambassador to the Netherlands, Philippe Lalliot, who said: "This obscene masquerade does not come as a surprise from the Syrian government, which has massacred and gassed its own people for the last seven years."
The row blew up after OPCW inspectors made a second visit to Douma on Wednesday, where they collected samples from a new location which will now be sent to designated laboratories for analysis.