Update: May accuses Russia and Syria of blocking inspectors from reaching Douma

Update: May accuses Russia and Syria of blocking inspectors from reaching Douma

Theresa May accused Russia of preventing international inspectors from reaching the site of the Syrian chemical weapons attack as relations with Moscow deteriorated further.

A diplomatic storm erupted as the Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Syrian and Russian officials had claimed there were "security issues" which prevented a fact-finding mission from reaching Douma, where around 75 people are thought to have died in the attack.

Russia suggested the missile strikes launched by the UK, US and France were part of the reason why the chemical weapons watchdog could not travel to the scene of the attack.

It strongly denied interfering with the work of inspectors attempting to reach the site of the atrocity which the UK and Western allies have concluded was perpetrated by the regime of Moscow's ally Bashar Assad.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said relations between Moscow and the West were worse than at the time of the Cold War.

He said the UK, Nato and European Union had closed the normal channels of communication with Russia which provided safeguards against confrontation.

"I think it is worse, because during the Cold War there were channels of communication and there was no obsession with Russophobia, which looks like genocide by sanctions," he told the BBC.

Updating MPs on the military action, the Prime Minister said it would not have been worth waiting for the OPCW's findings in Douma because Russian vetoes at the United Nations meant no blame could be apportioned for the attack.

"Even if the OPCW team is able to visit Douma to gather information to make that assessment - and they are currently being prevented from doing so by the regime and the Russians - it cannot attribute responsibility," she said.

Mrs May accused Russia and Syria of attempting to cover up the attack.

"The Syrian regime has reportedly been attempting to conceal the evidence by searching evacuees from Douma to ensure samples are not being smuggled from this area and a wider operation to conceal the facts of the attack is under way, supported by the Russians," she told MPs.

At a meeting of the OPCW in The Hague, director-general Ahmet Uzumcu said the organisation's team had arrived in Damascus on Saturday but "has not yet deployed to Douma".

"The Syrian and the Russian officials who participated in the preparatory meetings in Damascus have informed the FFM (fact-finding mission) team that there were still pending security issues to be worked out before any deployment could take place."

The UK's representative Peter Wilson said: "It is imperative that the Syrian Arab Republic and the Russian Federation offer the OPCW fact finding mission team their full co-operation and assistance to carry out their difficult task."

Russian diplomat Dmitry Polyanskiy said "all the obstacles" for the OPCW mission were the result of the US, UK and French "aggression" and the possibility of further strikes.

Mr Polyanskiy, Russia's first deputy permanent representative at the UN, said: "If you go to a site which was just bombed I imagine you might have certain logistic problems. And there are no Western guarantees of no more strikes, only words."

Relations between Russia and the UK have been plunged into the deep freeze following the nerve agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.

Mr Lavrov denied Russia had "tampered" with the site of the Syrian attack and insisted there was no proof that chemical weapons had been used.

The Russian foreign minister told the BBC: "There is no proof that on April 7 chemical weapons were used in Douma.

"I cannot be impolite to the heads of other states ... but frankly speaking, all the evidence they quoted was based on media reports and social networks."

Mrs May's decision to launch air strikes without parliamentary approval has led to criticism from MPs.

But she defended her decision not to recall Parliament, suggesting the "security" of the operation could have been compromised.

"The speed with which we acted was essential in co-operating with our partners to alleviate further humanitarian suffering and to maintain the vital security of our operations," she said.

The decision required the evaluation of intelligence "much of which was of a nature that could not be shared with Parliament".

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn repeated his assertion that the military action was "legally questionable".

There were cries of "shame" from the Tory benches as he told Mrs May she "is accountable to this Parliament, not to the whims of the US President".

Earlier: Fresh row between UK and Russia over Syrian chemical attack

Diplomatic tensions between the UK and Russia deepened amid claims that Moscow was blocking investigators from reaching the site of a chemical weapons attack in Syria.

The UK said it was "essential" that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was granted "unfettered access" to Douma.

Russia strongly denied interfering with the work of inspectors attempting to reach the site of the atrocity which the UK and Western allies have said was perpetrated by the regime of Moscow's ally Bashar Assad.

The latest row between the UK and Russia came as Theresa May prepared to face MPs over her decision to launch air strikes against Syria as Labour questioned the legality of the bombing raid.

The UK's representative at the OPCW, Peter Wilson, said: "It is imperative that the Syrian Arab Republic and the Russian Federation offer the OPCW fact finding mission team their full co-operation and assistance to carry out their difficult task."

He dismissed as "ludicrous" a Russian claim that the UK had helped stage the attack in Douma, which killed up to 75 people, including a number of children.

He said: "Russia has argued that the attack on Douma was somehow staged, or faked.

"They have even suggested that the UK was behind the attack. That is ludicrous."

He said Moscow was "spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation" to undermine the integrity of the OPCW's fact-finding mission to Syria.

Relations between Russia and the UK have been plunged into the deep freeze following the nerve agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury.

The UK's claims about interference with the OPCW's work in Syria were dismissed by Moscow.

"Russia confirms its adherence to the provision of security for the mission and does not plan to interfere with its work", the country's representative at the OPCW said according to Russian news agency Tass.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to face anger in the Commons after launching military action without securing the support of Parliament.

As well as facing MPs' questions, she will also take the unusual step of calling an urgent debate - although this is expected to fall far short of an explicit vote on the military action demanded by some in the Commons.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson insisted the strikes - co-ordinated with action by the United States and France - were "right for the UK and right for the world".

Mr Johnson, speaking at a summit of European Union foreign ministers, stressed it was "not an attempt to change the tide of the war in Syria or to have regime change" and "the Syrian war in many ways will go on in its horrible, miserable way".

"But it was the world saying that we have had enough of the use of chemical weapons, the erosion of that taboo that has been in place for 100 years has gone too far under Bashar Assad," he said.

But shadow attorney general Baroness Chakrabarti questioned the Government's justification for the airstrikes, telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "You can't use force under international law just to punish Syria for bad behaviour.

"You have to actually be using urgent, necessary and proportionate force. And you have to do it with the will of the world behind you."

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, writing in The Guardian, said: "The military action at the weekend was legally questionable.

"The Government's own justification, which relies heavily on the strongly contested doctrine of humanitarian intervention, does not even meet its own tests.

"Without UN authority it was again a matter of the US and British governments arrogating to themselves an authority to act unilaterally which they do not possess."

Mrs May will ask for the emergency debate to allow more time for discussion in a nod to the fury among MPs at not being consulted.

The Prime Minister will tell MPs that the strikes were in the national interest because the use of chemical weapons cannot be normalised, including in the UK.

She will say: "Let me be absolutely clear: we have acted because it is in our national interest to do so.

"It is in our national interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria - and to uphold and defend the global consensus that these weapons should not be used.

"For we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons to become normalised - either within Syria, on the streets of the UK or elsewhere."

Four Royal Air Force Tornado GR4s joined the co-ordinated missile strikes at 2am on Saturday, launching Storm Shadow missiles at a base 15 miles west of Homs.

- Digital Desk and Press Association



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