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Nov 17, 3:47 PM EST

UN to vote on 30-day extension of expert body on Syria



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UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- The U.N. Security Council has scheduled a vote Friday evening on a resolution that would extend for 30 days the mandate of the expert body charged with determining responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Rival U.S. and Russian resolutions to extend the expert body were defeated during a dramatic and highly contentious three-hour council meeting Thursday that reflected the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations.

The defeats ended the mandate of the expert body, the Joint Investigative Mechanism or JIM. This was seen as a serious blow to efforts to hold accountable those responsible for carrying out chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Japan's draft resolution that would authorize a 30-day extension of the Jim was seen as a last-ditch effort to keep it in operation.

But council diplomats said Thursday's divisions were still evident during closed consultations earlier Friday on the Japanese draft.

Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador Vladimir Safronkov opposed the Japanese draft while U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley and many other council members supported it, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private.

As a result, Russia is likely to veto the draft, the diplomats said.

The JIM is a joint investigative body of the U.N. and the international chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons or OPCW.

The Japanese draft resolution asks Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the head of the OPCW to submit proposals for the structure and working methods of the JIM within 20 days. It says the proposals should reflect the views of Security Council members.

But Mikhail Ulyanov, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's arms control and non-proliferation department, told the state RIA Novosti news agency on Friday that the Japanese resolution "sets a task that can't be fulfilled."

He asked how the secretary-general and OPCW chief can come up with proposals "if the opinions are opposite?"

"We shouldn't put the secretary-general in an awkward position," Ulyanov said. Security Council "members should hold consultations themselves, and we are ready for it."

At the heart of the dispute is the demand by Russia, Syria's most important ally, for major changes in the way the JIM operates, and the United States' insistence that the current mandate be extended and the JIM's independence be preserved.

Russia has been highly critical of the JIM's findings that the Syrian government used chlorine gas in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015 and used sarin in an aerial attack on Khan Sheikhoun last April 4 that killed about 100 people and affected about 200 others who survived the nerve agent.

Syria has denied any use of chemical weapons, while Russia has accused the JIM of using faulty methods to determine that President Bashar Assad's government was to blame for the attacks, including not visiting Khan Sheikhoun.

Ulyanov, the Russian Foreign ministry official, stressed again Friday that "naturally, taking into account all the negative experience, (the JIM's) mandate should be significantly strengthened."

France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters as he headed into consultations that the Japanese draft "is a pragmatic proposal that can open the door to get out of the stalemate to renew the JIM temporarily."

"We hope that we can get united around this proposal and we can work again on a lasting solution to renew the JIM," he said.

Britain's Rycroft also strongly supported the Japanese draft and expressed hope it would be unanimously approved.

"In the interest of accountability for all use of chemical weapons in Syria, it is worth one last try, even though we are now clearly in overtime in search for agreement among the Security Council to keep the JIM operational," he said.

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