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Russia vetoes gas probe … Briton killed fighting IS

Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov reacts during a United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria, at the UN headquarters in New York on April 7, 2017 (AFP)

UNITED NATIONS, US, Oct 24, (AFP): Russia on Tuesday vetoed a US-drafted resolution that would have granted a one-year extension to the mandate of a panel investigating who is behind chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

It was the ninth time Russia has used its veto power at the Security Council to block action targeting its Syrian ally.

Russia opposed renewing the mandate of the joint UN-Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) panel before it releases a report on a sarin gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, which is expected on Thursday.

The United States, France and Britain have accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of carrying out the April 4 attack on the opposition-held village, killing scores of people, including children. After Russia cast its veto, US Ambassador Nikki Haley accused Moscow of “once again” siding “with the dictators and terrorists who use these weapons”. “Russia has once again demonstrated it will do whatever it takes to ensure the barbaric Assad regime never faces consequences for its continued use of chemicals as weapons,” Haley said in a statement.

“By rejecting the renewal of the work of the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) — an independent, purely technical body — Russia has made it clear that it does not care about stopping the use of chemical weapons in the world.” A resolution requires nine votes to be adopted at the council, but five countries — Russia, Britain, China, France and the United States — can block adoption with their veto power. China and Kazakhstan abstained, while Bolivia voted against the renewal and 11 other countries backed extending the mandate. Russia used its veto to block adoption.

Russia failed at the opening of the meeting to garner enough support for a measure that would have delayed the vote until next month. The JIM’s mandate ends on Nov 17. Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia accused the United States and its partners of seeking a vote on the measure “to show up and dishonor Russia.” “What is taking place today is not very pleasant,” said Nebenzia. “It stinks, in fact.” The ambassador renewed his criticism of the panel, saying its methodology and “the lack of evidence” in the Khan Sheikhun investigation was “laughable.” But Nebenzia said the council could vote again on renewing the JIM after it has had the opportunity to study the Khan Sheikhun report.

“We did not close the JIM. We simply did not take a decision on extending it today, but we will return to it,” he said. More than 87 people died in Khan Sheikhun, drawing global outrage and prompting the United States to fire cruise missiles at a Syrian air base from which the West says the attack was launched. Last month, UN war crimes investigators said they had evidence that the Syrian air force was behind the attack, despite repeated denials from Damascus. Russia maintains that the sarin attack was most likely caused by a bomb set off directly on the ground, not by a Syrian air strike as alleged by the West.

While the OPCW has established that sarin was used in the April attack, it does not have a mandate to assign blame, leaving that determination to the JIM. The JIM has already concluded that Syrian government forces were responsible for chlorine attacks on three villages in 2014 and 2015, and that Islamic State jihadist group used mustard gas in 2015. Meanwhile, a British man fighting alongside Kurds against the Islamic State group in Syria has been killed during the push to liberate Raqqa, his family said Tuesday.

Sniper Jac Holmes, from Bournemouth in southern England, who was fighting with the Kurdistan People’s Protection Units, was clearing mines on Monday when he died, his mother told the Press Association. “He stood up for what he believed in and he had the courage of his convictions to go out and do something where he thought that the West were not doing enough,” Angie Blannin told PA. “To defeat ISIS he felt that it was not just a Syrian problem, or Middle Eastern problem, it was a world problem,” she said of the 24-year-old. Kurdish officials told her that her son had been clearing mines in the city, despite being a sniper. “It is all a bit sketchy but I am guessing he stepped on a landmine or one went off close to him, or it was a suicide vest.” Blannin said she had initially tried to talk her son, a former painter and decorator, out of going to fight IS in 2015, but described him as “very headstrong.” He fought alongside Kurdish soldiers and had previously suffered a gunshot wound. “I am extremely proud of him. All my family are incredibly proud,” his mother told PA. US President Donald Trump said Saturday that the end of the Islamic State “caliphate is in sight” with the fall of Raqqa.

The declaration came four days after US-backed Kurdish-led forces recaptured the city, the capital of IS’s selfproclaimed caliphate and its last major stronghold in Syria. Explosions of ordnance left in the ruins of Raqqa have killed 14 people in the week since the Syrian city was retaken from the Islamic State group, a spokesman said Tuesday. “At the end of last week, nine civilians were killed,” Mustefa Bali, spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that retook the former jihadist bastion, told AFP. The US-backed force has banned access to the devastated northern Syrian city to displaced residents wanting to return but Bali said that “unfortunately some civilians are managing to slip back in.” He did not specify in how many blasts the nine were killed but said they had returned to assess the condition of their homes. Raqqa, IS’s main Syrian hub, was retaken after a more than four-month-old operation and suffered extensive damage.

Planting booby traps in homes and roadside bombs was the centrepiece of IS’s defence system. Bali said the mine-clearing effort only started officially on Tuesday and added that five other people had already been killed in the ordnance disposal process. “Five people were killed, three fighters and two technicians,” he said. The technicians were civilians working with a Syrian Kurdish organisation specialised in ordnance disposal. The United Nations reacted to the civilian deaths Tuesday by expressing concern for displaced residents they said might be tempted by the dire conditions in displacement camps to return to Raqqa prematurely. “The UN is concerned for the safety and protection of civilians at risk of death and injury from unexploded ordnances reportedly planted throughout Raqqa city neighbourhoods,” a statement from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

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