Britain, France denounce Russian claim as 'stunt'

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Britain and France denounced on Thursday as a stunt and an "obscene masquerade" a move by Russia to produce Syrian witnesses who Moscow says were filmed in "staged videos" in the aftermath of a reported chemical weapons attack.

Russian officials brought the purported witnesses for a briefing later Thursday at The Hague headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The development is seen as an effort by Russia to discredit widespread reports of an April 7 suspected chemical weapon attack in the town of Douma near the Syrian capital, Damascus, which killed more than 40 people. The West has blamed the attack on President Bashar Assad's government. Syria and Russia deny the claims.

"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," said France's ambassador to the Netherlands, Philippe Lalliot.

Britain's ambassador, Peter Wilson, said he and other Western allies would not attend the briefing.

On Wednesday, OPCW inspectors made a second visit to the town of Douma, collecting samples from a new location that will be sent to designated labs for analysis. The suspected poison gas attack has sparked an ongoing clash of narratives between the West and the governments of Syria and its key ally, Russia. Damascus and Moscow insist there was no chemical weapons attack.

Opposition activists and first responders who witnessed the attack in Douma, which was under rebel control at the time, say it was carried out by government forces. Many of the victims suffocated in an underground shelter where they were hiding from government airstrikes, the activists said.

Following the suspected chemical attack, the United States, France and Britain launched joint punitive airstrikes targeting suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities on April 14.

On the ground in Syria on Thursday, government forces pushed into a Damascus neighborhood held by the Islamic State group from different directions, capturing buildings on several street blocks and also tunnels used by the extremists, state media said.

State news agency SANA said dozens of IS fighters were killed in battles in the southern Damascus neighborhood of Hajar al-Aswad during which ground forces closely coordinated with the air force in bombarding the area.

The weeklong fighting in Hajar al-Aswad and the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk has killed dozens of people. The area is the last district out of government control in Damascus and its capture would boost security in Assad's seat of power.

The opposition's Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian authorities ordered rebel groups in the southern Damascus suburbs of Babila, Beit Sahm and Yalda to give up their positions along fronts lines with IS in the area or face government bombardment.

The Observatory said the fighting that started last Thursday has killed 68 Syrian troops and pro-government fighters as well as 52 IS gunmen.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, warned of "catastrophic consequences of the severe escalation" of fighting affecting the Yarmouk refugee camp and surrounding areas.

"Yarmouk and its inhabitants have endured indescribable pain and suffering over years of conflict. We are deeply concerned about the fate of thousands of civilians, including Palestine refugees, after more than a week of dramatically increased violence", said UNRWA Commissioner-General, Pierre Krahenbuhl.

The current hostilities have caused deaths and injuries and have displaced around 5,000 civilians from Yarmouk into neighboring Yalda, of which 3,500 are Palestine refugees, UNRWA said. It added that the agency calls for the immediate granting of safe passage for civilians wishing to leave the camp and surrounding areas and for the evacuation of the injured, the sick and the elderly.

"UNRWA stands ready to provide urgently needed assistance to the population in and around Yarmouk, as soon as the security situation permits and access is granted," Krahenbuhl said.


Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.