Theresa May is to hold an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss joining the United States and France in possible military action against Syria.
The prime minister summoned her senior ministers to No 10 after saying “all the indications” were the regime of Bashar al-Assad was responsible for a suspected chemical weapons attack on civilians last weekend.
Donald Trump warned Russia of imminent military action in Syria, declaring missiles “will be coming” and denouncing Moscow for standing by Syria’s president.
It followed the Kremlin’s insistence that it would shoot down any missiles and attack their source, in developments that have placed the two global and nuclear superpowers closer to open conflict than at any time since the Cold War.
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Syria’s UN ambassador has said Bashar al-Assad’s regime will facilitate a visit by international chemical weapons inspectors at “any point they want” to the town where a suspected gas attack occurred last weekend.
Speaking in New York on Thursday, Bashar Ja’afari said an inspection team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was on its way to Damascus and that visas were being provided.
Mr Ja’afari said any delay or “disruption of their visit” would be as a result of “political pressure” from Western countries, which Syria says have politicised the issue.
He denied his government has used chemical weapons in Douma and said “terrorists” have access to such weapons.
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Bolivia’s UN ambassador, who has called an emergency Security Council meeting on the threat of an attack on Syria, said he wants all members to agree that “no unilateral action should be taken.”
Sacha Llorentty Soliz said any unilateral action against Syria should be considered “illegal” by all countries.
He told reporters ahead of Thursday’s closed council meeting that his message to the US government “is for them to comply with international law, to at least have at first a complete investigation of what happened” in the Damascus suburb of Douma, where a chemical attack is alleged to have taken place late Saturday.
After an investigation, he said, the Security Council should be asked “to adopt any measures” in response to the findings.
The US, Britain and France blame Syria for the suspected gas attack in Douma, while Syria and its close ally Russia deny any attack took place.
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Italy will have no direct role in any eventual Western military attack against the Syrian government but it will provide “logistical support” to its allies, the country’s prime minister has said.
Caretaker leader Paolo Gentiloni had numerous “international” contacts on Thursday, including with German chancellor Angela Merkel, his office added in a statement.
“Italy will not participate in Syrian military actions,” Mr Gentiloni told allies, according to the statement. “Based on current international and bilateral accords, Italy will continue to offer logistical support to allied forces.”
Germany said earlier that it, too, would not join any strikes against Syria in response to a suspected poison gas attack allegedly carried out by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces on an opposition enclave.
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Nato is calling on Russia and Iran to ensure international observers and medical staff are allowed in and around the area of the suspected chemical attack in Syria.
Secretary general Jens Stoltenberg earlier urged Syrian president Bashar Assad to allow “full and unimpeded access to international medical assistance and international monitoring”.
Speaking to reporters this afternoon, he said it was also up to the regime’s supporters Iran and Russia to “make that possible”.
The Russian military says Syrian government forces are in full control of Douma, where a suspected gas attack last week killed more than 40 people.
Mr Stoltenberg said that consultations were ongoing among Nato allies on how to respond to the attack and said “it is important that those responsible are held accountable.”
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US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has told Congress that he believes there was a chemical attack in Syria and said United States wants inspectors on the ground to collect evidence as soon as possible.
He warned collecting evidence will become more difficult as time passes.
“I believe there was a chemical attack and we are looking for the actual evidence,” Mr Mattis told a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
He added one of his major concerns about any US military strike was preventing an “out-of-control” escalation in the Syrian civil war, in which Russia, Iran, Turkey and others have taken sides.
Mr Mattis also accused Russia of being complicit in Syria’s retention of chemical weapons, despite a 2013 deal requiring Syria to abandon them that Moscow helped broker.
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The head of the intelligence agency GCHQ has said the Salisbury nerve agent attack last month shows how “reckless” Russia is prepared to be,
Ashley Cowburn writes.
In his first speech since taking the job at the secretive department last year Jeremy Fleming — formerly a senior MI5 office — took aim at Moscow, describing recent actions as “particularly stark and shocking”.
Speaking at cyber conference on Thursday, he said: It demonstrates how reckless Russia is prepared to be. How little the Kremlin cares for the international rules-based order. How comfortable they are at putting ordinary lives at risk.
“The robust response from the UK and from the international community shows the Kremlin that illegal acts have consequences.
“And it looks like our expertise on Russia will be in increasing demand.”
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The United States is committed to ending the Syrian civil war through the Geneva process, the US defence secretary, James Mattis, has said.
Mr Mattis told congress Russia was complicit in Syria’s retention of chemical weapons.
He said he would notify congress leaders before any strike in Syria.
As the US weighs military action, Mr Mattis said the country was looking to avoid stoking an escalating situation in Syria that gets “out of control.”
“I believe there was a chemical attack,” he said.
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Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party, argues MPs must be given a vote on any decision to intervene in Syria.
Air strikes in Syria could make things even worse – Parliament needs a vote
The horror in eastern Ghouta at the weekend was truly sickening. People foaming at the mouth, children suffocating, scores dead. We’ve seen these kind of images before, but they do not become less shocking.
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The defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, and culture secretary, Matt Hancock, have also arrived at No 10.
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Amber Rudd, the home secretary, has arrived at No 10 for Theresa May’s emergency cabinet meeting.
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David Davis ‘assured’ he will get answers over military action in Syria
The Brexit secretary has suggested he has changed his mind over military intervention in Syria in the wake of a suspected chemical attack, after he voted against similar action when David Cameron was prime minister.
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Russia has warned the US and its allies against assuming the role of a “global policeman” in response to what it describes as fake claims of chemical weapons use in Syria.
A spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, said Western leaders have no authority to be “investigators, prosecutors and executioners.”
Ms Zakharova described the chemical weapons allegations as fake, but said the international chemical weapons watchdog should investigate them. She said Russia would ensure the monitors’ security.
She went on to call for de-escalating the situation, urging the West to carefully weigh the consequences before taking any action.
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Russian ships have left the Tartus naval base in Syria, a Russian MP has said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Vladimir Shamanov, who chairs the Russian defence committee of the lower house of parliament, said the vessels had left the Mediterranean base for their own safety.
“… this is normal practice” when there are threats of an attack he said.
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Russia’s foreign ministry said the world should think seriously about the possible consequences of threats.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman, said Russia does not want an escalation of the situation in Syria, but said it could not support “dishonest accusations.”
She said the Kremlin found no evidence of a chemical weapons attack in Douma.
Ms Zakharova said threats by the US and France were a violation of the UN charter, and blamed an Israeli air strike on Saturday for worsening stability in Syria.
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Ken Clarke, the former chancellor, has joined MPs in calling for a parliamentary vote on any military action.
He told BBC Radio 4’s
World at One: “In a modern, parliamentary democracy, I think you have got to have parliamentary approval if you have a planned, policy decision to launch a military attack of any significant size.
“To say that Parliament is just sidelined before you take such a serious decision is a very retrograde step. It makes parliamentary accountability fairly pathetic.”
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The United Nations is hopeful of getting aid to at least 100,000 Syrians who are desperate for help after months of battle ended years of siege around the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta, UN humanitarian adviser Jan Egeland said on Thursday.
“What I hope is that the battle for eastern Ghouta, very belatedly, now is over because there seems to be an agreement on Douma, the remaining rebel stronghold, that could lead to us getting access for the first time in a long time, to help the people inside Douma,” Mr Egeland said.
The UN had long been prevented from sending aid, Mr Egeland said, adding that he hoped all those who wanted to leave would be evacuated and those who wanted to stay could remain.
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Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin discussed recent developments in Syria in an telephone call on Thursday, a Turkish presidential source has said, adding that the two leaders agreed to remain in close contact.
The call with Mr Putin came after Mr Erdogan earlier spoke to Donald Trump on the phone and also exchanged views on Syria.
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The White Helmets volunteer civil defence service in Syria claims there are casualties following an “unknown explosion” in Azaz city in northern Aleppo.
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A Kremlin spokesperson has warned the US and its allies against any steps that could destabilise the situation in Syria.
Asked about possible US strikes on Syria, Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said “it’s necessary to avoid any steps that may fuel tensions in Syria.”
He added that it would have an “utterly destructive impact on the Syrian settlement.”
Mr Peskov wouldn’t say if Moscow could use a Russia-US military hotline to avoid casualties in case of a US strike blow, saying only that “the hotline exists and has remained active”.
Donald Trump warned Russia on Wednesday to “get ready” for a missile attack on its ally Syria. But he tweeted Thursday that it may come “very soon or not so soon at all!”
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Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary general, has said those responsible for a poison gas attack in Syria must be held accountable and urged Damascus to allow access to the site.
“We condemn in the strongest terms the use of chemical weapons,” Stoltenberg said. “We call on the Syrian regime and its backers to allow full and unimpeded access to international medical assistance and international monitoring.”
“Those responsible must be held accountable,” he said.
Russia has repeatedly warned the West against attacking its Syrian ally, which is also supported by Iran.
Moscow has said there was no chemical attack in Douma, in the besieged rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus.
Ms May recalled the ministers from their Easter holiday for a special cabinet meeting in Downing Street to discuss Britain’s response to what she has cast as a barbaric attack which cannot go unchallenged.
“The chemical weapons attack that took place on Saturday in Douma in Syria was a shocking and barbaric act,” Ms May said. “All the indications are that the Syrian regime was responsible.”
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had said it intends to send investigators to Douma to look for any evidence of a chemical attack.
Ms May has faced calls to wait for unequivocal proof of a chemical attack by the Assad regime before committing British forces to retaliatory action.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, joined other opposition parties, as well as some Conservative backbenchers, in insisting MPs must be have a say on any British involvement in military action.
However, Ms May faces growing impatience from Washington, after Mr Trump’s tweet to say the missiles “will be coming”.
The prime minister is not obliged to win parliament’s approval, but a non-binding constitutional convention to do so has been established since a 2003 vote on joining the US-led invasion of Iraq.
It has been observed in subsequent military deployments in Libya and Iraq.
Britain has been launching air strikes in Syria from its military base in Cyprus, but only against targets linked to Isis.
Parliament voted down British military action against Mr Assad’s government in 2013, in an embarrassment for David Cameron.
The vote deterred Barack Obama’s administration from similar action.
Additional reporting by agencies