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article imageRussia warns of split in chemical arms body

By Danny KEMP (AFP)     Nov 20, 2018 in World

Russia warned Tuesday of a split in the world chemical weapons watchdog after Moscow failed to stall the body's new powers to apportion blame for attacks like those in Syria.

After a bitter war of words, member states approved the 2019 budget for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which includes funding for the new role.

They also shot down a proposal by Russia and China to set up an "expert group" which the West said would have effectively blocked the new powers.

In June the Hague-based OPCW approved a British-backed move to allow the body to identify the perpetrators of chemical attacks. Previously it could only confirm whether or not toxic arms had been used.

The West pushed through the new blaming powers after a string of chemical incidents in Syria, as well as a nerve agent attack on Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal in the British city of Salisbury in March.

"A clear majority against an attempt to wreck the historic June decision," British ambassador to the OPCW Peter Wilson said on Twitter. "An overwhelming result, which clearly says #NoToChemicalWeapons."

- 'Serious division' -

But Russian Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Georgy Kalamanov warned that there was now a "serious division" in the OPCW between the West and Russia's allies.

Asked if Russia would now carry through on hints to stop funding or even pull out of the OPCW, Kalamanov told a press conference in The Hague that Moscow needed to "analyse the situation" but would "prepare a comprehensive response".

Russian ambassador Alexander Shulgin said the West was doing 'huge damage' by politicising...
Russian ambassador Alexander Shulgin said the West was doing 'huge damage' by politicising the chemical arms watchdog
Evert-Jan Daniels, ANP/AFP

Russian ambassador Alexander Shulgin said the West was doing "huge damage" by politicising the watchdog, whose original role was to destroy the world's chemical arms stocks.

The atmosphere at the OPCW was already toxic after Dutch authorities said in October that they had expelled four Russian spies who were trying to hack into the OPCW's computer system in April.

But it descended into open hostility after Russia and its allies introduced their proposals for the meeting, with accusations of hypocrisy and lies flying from both sides.

Applause broke out at the meeting after states voted 99 to 27 in favour of the 2019 budget.

It was the first time the OPCW had ever voted on the budget, after Russia and Iran, which both oppose the new attribution powers, insisted on a vote.

The OPCW also voted 82-30 against Russia's joint plan with China to set up an "open ended" group to scrutinise how the new powers would work.

Iran, Syria, Pakistan, South Africa, Palestine and Cuba were among those that backed Russia.

France's embassy to the Netherlands hailed the "overwhelming majority."

- 'Imposed by an axis' -

But Syrian ambassador to the OPCW Bassam Sabbag slammed the "illegality" of the attribution powers, saying they were "imposed by an axis that wants to implement an agenda."

OPCW chief Fernando Arias has said he aims to set up a team early next year that could attribute blame for all chemical attacks in Syria since 2013.

It will also be allowed to point the finger for attacks elsewhere if asked to by the country where the incident happened.

Russia later called a vote on plans to set up a special cybersecurity fund for the OPCW in the wake of the spy scandal -- which it also lost.

The alleged Russian agents caught by Dutch intelligence in April used electronic equipment hidden in a car parked outside a nearby hotel, the Netherlands said.

At the time the organisation was investigating the attack on Skripal as well as a major chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma.

Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, the OPCW was set up by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention under which almost every country in the world pledged to give up toxic arms.

The OPCW says it has overseen the destruction of 96.5 percent of the world's chemical arms stocks.

But it has since been dragged into more politically sensitive territory with its investigations in Syria and Salisbury.

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