(CNSNews.com) – As President Trump threatened a missile strike against the Syrian regime for a suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus, Russia’s military on Wednesday accused the White Helmets rescue organization of staging the attack, and claimed its own personnel had found no evidence of chemical use at the scene.
The volunteer organization formally known as Syrian Civil Defense has been credited with saving tens of thousands of civilians during Syria’s drawn-out civil war. It has long faced a Russian-led campaign to discredit it by linking it to “terrorists.”
On Wednesday Russia’s General Staff did so again.
“[On April 7] the notorious White Helmets, who operate as part of terrorist groups, staged and filmed a chemical weapons attack on civilians in the town of Douma,” Lieutenant General Viktor Poznikhir, first deputy chief of the Main Operations Department, told a briefing.
“It is to be reminded that since 2013 representatives of this pseudo organization jointly with terrorists were organizing such staging in different areas of Syria using children and infants,” he said, according to a transcript provided by the defense ministry.
Saturday’s attack took place in the last important rebel-held area near the capital, Douma in Eastern Ghouta. Medical relief organizations said some 70 people were killed, and reported symptoms associated with exposure to toxic chemicals.
The World Health Organization (WHO), citing its “health cluster partners,” said that “an estimated 500 patients presented to health facilities exhibiting signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals.”
“In particular, there were signs of severe irritation of mucous membranes, respiratory failure and disruption to central nervous systems of those exposed,” it said.
“More than 70 people sheltering in basements have reportedly died, with 43 of those deaths related to symptoms consistent with exposure to highly toxic chemicals.”
International investigators mandated by the U.N. have found the Assad regime responsible for at least four chemical attacks since 2014, despite it having supposedly surrendered all “declared” chemical weapons stocks under an agreement the previous year. That agreement was brokered by Russia after an Aug. 2013 sarin attack that cost more than 1,400 lives.
The Trump administration quickly accused the Syrian regime of responsibility for this latest attack, with the president calling President Bashar al-Assad an “animal” and warning his ally Russia in tweets on Wednesday that missiles “will be coming.”
At the briefing in Moscow, Poznikhir said Russian medical experts and chemical-warfare specialists who went into Douma on April 9 had been unable to find any traces of nerve gas or other toxic agents in the town, affected patients at medical centers, or the bodies of those killed in the reported attack.
Poznikhir took issue with what he called the “irresponsible statements” of the WHO, saying that the Syrian Red Crescent had been unable to provide any information corroborating the WHO claims.
Meanwhile the White Helmets posted a video clip, filmed on Monday night, showing what it said was a chemical gas canister at one of the locations Russian officials had visited and where they claimed to have found no sign of chemical weapons use.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has launched a fact-finding mission which it said was “in the process of gathering further information from all available sources to establish whether chemical weapons were used” in Douma.
OPCW experts are expected to visit the scene this week, and U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres has said the inspectors should be allowed unfettered access to investigate.
While the OPCW will try to establish whether chemical agents were used, it does not have a mandate to determine responsibility.
A joint OPCW-U.N. task force, which did have such a mandate, was shut down by veto-wielding Russia last November, weeks after it found the Assad regime guilty of using sarin in the April 4, 2017 attack in Khan Sheikhun – the deadly incident that prompted Trump to order a cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase days later.
Earlier, it had reported that the regime had used chlorine gas as a weapon on at least three occasions in 2014 and 2015.
The OPCW-U.N. mechanism also found ISIS guilty of using sulfur mustard in Aleppo in 2015 and 2016.