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World powers clash over arms watchdog

The Hague, Monday

World powers traded accusations of hypocrisy in bitter clashes on Monday over the global toxic weapons watchdog’s new ability to attribute blame for attacks like those in Syria and Salisbury.

The United States and Britain went head-to-head with Russia, China and Syria over the boosted powers that members agreed to give the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in June.

At a tense meeting in The Hague, Moscow and Beijing were accused of trying to stall the watchdog’s new role indefinitely by proposing that the changes be subjected to “open-ended” scrutiny before going live.

US Ambassador Kenneth Ward said Russia’s claims that the OPCW’s new powers were illegitimate were “pungent hypocrisy”, and warned against allowing a “new era of chemical weapons use to take hold”.

“What have they done for the last few years but to connive with their Syrian ally to bury the truth of what has happened in Syria, along with the dead killed by the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime,” Ward said.

“And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Salisbury comes along.” The West pushed through the new powers after a string of chemical attacks in Syria, as well as a nerve agent attack on Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal in the British city of Salisbury in March.

Britain accused Russia of carrying out the attack using a Soviet-era chemical called Novichok and the West has since imposed a series of sanctions on Moscow.

British envoy to the OPCW Peter Wilson called any attempt to limit the watchdog’s power to attribute blame for chemical attacks “unacceptable”.

But Russia’s envoy Alexander Shulgin hit back, saying that Western claims of chemical weapons use by Damascus and Moscow were a “scam” and “out and out lies”.

He added that Russia had a “principled position regarding the illegitimacy” of the new investigative powers, adding that they “infringe on the properties of the UN Security Council”, where Russia has a veto.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad meanwhile launched a fierce broadside at the US and Britain.

“You have taught people to use chemical weapons, you have used chemical weapons in the first two world wars. The Syrian government has never used chemical weapons,” he said. “Where is your morality? This is sheer hypocrisy and sheer lies, I wish to use such undiplomatic language.”

The meeting is also the first since the expulsion of four Russians accused by Dutch authorities in October of trying to hack into the OPCW’s computer system. —AFP

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