Official: Syria to facilitate chemical weapons team mission

Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad speaks to the AP at his office in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Mekdad says an international chemical weapons team will visit Damascus in the coming days vowing to facilitate its mission to uncover who used chemical weapons in the country earlier this year. (AP Photo)

DAMASCUS, Syria — An international chemical weapons delegation will visit Syria in the coming days and Damascus will facilitate its mission to uncover who used chemical weapons in the country earlier this year, a Syrian official said Saturday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the delegation of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and U.N. Joint Investigative Mechanism is scheduled to arrive in Syria within 10 days.

Mekdad reiterated in an interview with The Associated Press his government's denial of being behind the April 4 attack in the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed nearly 100 people.

The United States blamed the Syrian military for the attack and launched a punitive strike days later on the Shayrat air base from where it said the attack was launched.

"We will offer it all facilitations needed for the investigation and to help it arrive to the place where the alleged chemical attack took place," Mekdad said, adding that a delegation that came to Syria earlier this year did not visit Khan Sheikhoun citing security concerns. He added that the delegation also did not visit the Shayrat air base either.

It is not likely that the delegation will be able to visit Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province that has witnessed clashes recently between al-Qaida-linked fighters and rival insurgent groups.

"We will ask them to go to Shayrat air base and by that Syria would have given proof that it has no relations to the use of poison gas," Mekdad said in the interview at his office in Damascus.

"We bet on the professionalism and neutrality of the Joint Investigation Mechanism that will visit Syria within the next ten days, to investigate who used chemical weapons," the Syrian official said.

Mekdad showed the AP images including one of a crater filled with cement, saying it was the place of the chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun. He said the rebels were behind the April attack.

Last month, Russia said Washington and its Western allies rushed to judgment and blamed the Syrian government for using sarin nerve gas in the Khan Sheikhoun without ever visiting the site and ignoring two witnesses presented by Damascus.

Syria joined the OPCW in 2013, avoiding possible U.S. military strikes in the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb. Washington and U.S. allies accused the Syrian government of being responsible for the attack, but Damascus blamed rebels.

On other issues, Mekdad said Syria is abiding by the agreement establishing de-escalation zones in central and southern Syria, saying his government forces are only targeting members of the Islamic State group and al-Qaida-linked fighters that are considered terrorist organizations by the U.N.

He blamed the U.S.-led coalition that is carrying out airstrikes against IS for killing "thousands of civilians and wounding tens of thousands of civilians" in IS-held areas in northern and eastern Syria.

He called for dissolving this coalition saying it is committing "crimes" against Syrians.

Mekdad said that "those who want to fight terrorism should coordination with the Syrian government and the Syrian army." He added that the war in Syria will end "when terrorism is crushed."

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