Emily Thornberry booed after denying Russia is attempting to block chemical weapons inspectors

Harry Yorke

Emily Thornberry was booed by a Question Time audience last night after she denied Russia was interfering in a chemical weapons inspection by officials in Syria.

The shadow foreign secretary faced an angry backlash when she suggested that delays holding up inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were the result of the United Nations and its “red tape...and their safety stuff”.

Last night commentators on social media claimed that her remarks were strikingly similar to those made by Russian minister Sergei Ryabkov, who said earlier this week that inspectors had not been given UN “approval” to carry out their mission. They had.

The latest controversy follows the decision by the UK, France and the US to launch strikes against the Assad regime for a suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma, Eastern Ghouta.

Reports suggest that as many as 75 people were killed during the attack, thought to have been carried out by Syrian regime forces, while several hundred were injured.

Inspectors from the OPCW have been sent to Syria to examine the site of the attack but have been prevented from accessing the area after a UN security team were fired upon on Wednesday whilst doing reconnaissance.

The Syrian regime and Russia have since been blamed for the incident, with the US defence secretary General Jim Mattis accusing President Assad of attempting to “clean up the evidence before the investigation team gets in”.

Support for air strikes on Syria has increased in the past week

His comments were last night echoed by Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who told the BBC audience that “the Russians have stopped the weapons inspectors from coming in”.

“They have stopped action being taken and the reality is these dreadful chemical weapons that have been used to flush out innocent citizens from their homes in Syria have been backed, not just by the Assad regime but also Russia has turned a blind eye and Russia is on the security council,” she added.

“Russia frankly is a rogue state that has been allowed to do this.”

However, to the frustration of other panelists, Ms Thornberry fired back that she “did not accept” the allegation against Russia, adding: “My understanding is that it’s a United Nations problem with their red tape and their safety and getting their safety stuff through.”

Turning to who was responsible for the attack, Ms Thornberry also appeared to cast doubt on the conclusions drawn by the UK, French and US Governments on the Syrian regime’s culpability.

Syria strikes | Read latest

“I was at the Security Council discussion when it was first happening and you have the American’s on one side saying ‘of course it was the Russian’s and Assad who were responsible for these chemicals’ and the Russians were saying there were no chemicals used at all,” she continued.

“Listen, whatever my personal opinion is, there are weapon inspectors in Damascus and they are going in and what they need to do is they need to prove that the chemical weapons were used and that is the baseline and that is where we start.

“I want Assad prosecuted for this and if he is going to be prosecuted we need to have evidence that everyone can agree on.”

It comes after Jeremy Corbyn was openly challenged by his own MPs after he suggested that “other parties” could have been responsible for the attack because they had access to chlorine gas.

Meanwhile, a group of senior MPs have today formed a cross-party group to  to ensure Britain can respond to any aggression from Russia "from an informed standpoint".

Support for air strikes on Syria by party vote

The group will be lead by Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs committee, and will be also be guided by senior Tory Nicky Morgan, who chairs the treasury committee.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Tugendhat said that Britain could be doing "a lot more" to put pressure on Vladimir Putin's "gangster" regime.

He added that the UK should follow the United State’s lead in bringing harsh sanctions against close associates of the Russian president in the wake of Salisbury and the chemical weapons attacks. "I am very keen that we respond in a particularly targeted fashion against those who are effectively the oligarchs, the princes around the new emperor in the Kremlin,” he added.

"I think it is important we target those who support Putin and his effective gangster regime.

"There is a lot more we can do and the reaction of the recent sanctions from the US on the Russian government were extremely powerful and were very clearly noted by the Kremlin regime."