- As US general in Afghanistan says Russia may be aiding Taliban
The US has imposed “sweeping” sanctions on officials in a Syrian government agency in response to a suspected chemical attack earlier this month.
The treasury department ordered a freeze on all assets in the US of 271 employees of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC).
The US believes it made the nerve agent that killed more than 80 people in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Syria says the incident was a fabrication.
President Bashar al-Assad has accused the West of making up events in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April so the US had an excuse to carry out missile strikes on the government’s Shayrat airbase, which took place a few days after the alleged attack.
In a statement on Monday, the treasury department said the 271 employees had been responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them”.
The sanctions mean that American citizens will be forbidden from having any dealings with them.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that “these sweeping sanctions target the scientific support centre for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s horrific chemical weapons attack on innocent civilian men, women, and children.
“The United States is sending a strong message with this action that we will hold the entire Assad regime accountable for these blatant human rights violations in order to deter the spread of these types of barbaric chemical weapons.”
Witnesses have said they saw warplanes attack Khan Shiekhoun – but Russia, a key ally of President Assad, says a rebel depot of chemical munitions was hit.
Footage showed victims – many of them children – convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Sufferers were taken to hospitals across the border in Turkey.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has said that allegations of a chemical attack were “credible” based on a preliminary examination of the evidence.
More than 300,000 people have lost their lives and millions of people have been displaced since a peaceful uprising against President Assad six years ago turned into a full-scale civil war.
In the meantime, Russia is believed to be the source of an influx of weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said in a press conference on Monday.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who appeared with Nicholson at Resolute Support headquarters, said the U.S. would have to “confront Russia” over “denying the sovereignty of other countries,” including Afghanistan.
“For example, any weapons being funneled here from a foreign country would be a violation of international law,” said Mattis.
Asked if he would refute claims that Russia is providing weapons to the Taliban, Nicholson answered definitively.
“Oh no, I’m not refuting that,” the general said.
Nicholson said the U.S. has continued to receive reports of Russian assistance to the Taliban.
While Mattis said that the U.S. would “engage with Russia diplomatically,” he spoke in stronger terms about the threat of the Taliban and of ISIS in Afghanistan and expressed confidence about his ability to advise President Donald Trump on U.S. policy in the region upon his return.
“We are under no illusions about the challenges associated with this mission,” said Mattis, who called the Taliban a “barbaric enemy” as he referenced an attack Friday that killed more than 100 at an Afghan military base.
On ISIS, Nicholson issued a warning to the terrorist organization that is currently centered within Iraq and Syria.
“If they come here to Afghanistan, they will be destroyed. In keeping secretary’s intent, they will be annihilated,” said Nicholson, who noted that ISIS attempts to gain a foothold in the country have been mostly repelled.
“We’re going to keep going until they’re defeated in 2017,” said Nicholson. “Now they have an aspiration, I think, to move fighters here from Syria. We haven’t seen it happen. And, in fact, by reducing their sanctuary here, by annihilating them here, it should very clear to ISIS main there is no space to come to in Afghanistan.”
BBC with additional report from Abc