Theresa May’s cabinet has agreed on the need to “take action” to deter use of chemical weapons following an emergency meeting at Downing Street.
The prime minister summoned her senior ministers to No 10 to discuss joining the United States and France in possible military strikes against Syria after saying “all the indications” were Bashar al-Assad’s was responsible for a suspected nerve agent 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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Theresa May and Donald Trump have spoken via phone according to a statement from Downing Street.
“The Prime Minister spoke to President Trump about Syria this evening.
“They agreed that the Assad regime had established a pattern of dangerous behaviour in relation to the use of chemical weapons.
“They agreed it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged, and on the need to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
“They agreed to keep working closely together on the international response.”
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Whatever action Mr Trump and other western allies do decide to take, US Defence Secretary James Mattis made clear earlier that Washington is not looking to insert itself directly in Syria’s civil war.
“Our strategy remains the same as a year ago,” he said. “It is to drive this to a UN-brokered peace but, at the same time, keep our foot on the neck of Isis until we suffocate it,” referring to jihadi group which at one-point held swathes of territory in Syria.
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Just as UK prime minister Theresa May spoke to her Cabinet this afternoon, the White House has just issued a statement in the wake of Mr Trump meeting with his national security team.
“President Trump just finished a meeting with his National Security team to discuss the situation in Syria. No final decision has been made. We are continuing to asses intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies. The President will speak with President [Emmanuel] Macron and Prime Minister May this evening.”
Both French President Mr Macron and Ms May have said action should be taken over Syria, but looks like we will have to wait a little longer for the countries to co-ordinate. Or perhaps the two leaders are waiting for Mr Trump to respond first.
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Here’s the full story from Ben Kentish on Labour’s shadow international development secretary unexpectedly backing military action in Syria:
Labour shadow cabinet minister backs Syria intervention and tells Corbyn to stop commenting on foreign policy
Labour’s shadow international development secretary has unexpectedly backed intervention in Syria and called for Bashar al-Assad to be removed as president.
As Britain gears up to support the US in strikes against the Assad regime, Kate Osamor insisted “intervention must take place” if evidence suggests government forces used chemical weapons against civilians and said the Syrian president “needs to be removed”, although she admitted “it’s not as easy as that”.
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Moscow says its military police have begun operating in the Syrian city of Douma, following the withdrawl of anti-government fighters.
Major general Yuri Yevtushenko said Russian forces had been deployed “to prevent provocations, guarantee security, for the support of law and order and organise aid for the local population.”
Mr Yevtushenko heads the Russian centere for reconciliation of the warring parties in Syria.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said earlier today that Douma was under the control of Syrian forces and that some 1,500 fighters from the Army of Islam group had left the town in east Ghouta.
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Potential military action against Syria is the subject of infighting among Labour MPs, reports
Independent political correspondent Ben Kentish:
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Here’s the full statement from No 10 after today’s emergency cabinet meeting:
“The Prime Minister said it was a shocking and barbaric act which killed up to 75 people, including children, in the most appalling and inhumane way.
“Cabinet agreed that the Assad regime has a track record of the use of chemical weapons and it is highly likely that the regime is responsible for Saturday’s attack.
“The Prime Minister said it was a further example of the erosion of international law in relation to the use of chemical weapons, which was deeply concerning to us all.
“Following a discussion in which every member present made a contribution, Cabinet agreed it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not go unchallenged.
“Cabinet agreed on the need to take action to alleviate humanitarian distress and to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
“Cabinet agreed the Prime Minister should continue to work with allies in the United States and France to co-ordinate an international response.”
3 hours ago
Cabinet agrees on need to ‘take action’ in Syria to deter use of chemical weapons
Theresa May’s Cabinet has agreed on the need to “take action” to deter the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
A statement from Downing Street said Britain would coordinate its response with France and the US.
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Russia called for the United Nations Security Council to meet on Friday to discuss Syria.
Moscow has also requested that UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres publicly brief the 15-member body.
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Russia’s UN Ambassador has urged the United States and its allies to refrain from military action against Syria, saying the “immediate priority is to avert the danger of war.”
Asked if he was referring to a war between the United States and Russia, Vassily Nebenzia told reporters: “We cannot exclude any possibilities unfortunately because we saw messages that are coming from Washington. They were very bellicose.
“They know we are there, I wish there was dialect though the proper channels on this to avert any dangerous developments. The danger of escalation is higher than simply Syria because our military are there.”
He added the situation was “very dangerous”.
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Blood and urine samples obtained from victims of the attack in Syria last weekend have tested positive for chemicals, US officials have told NBC News.
The samples suggested the presence of chlorine and a nerve agent, the broadcaster reported.
The two officials, who were not named, said they were “confident” about the findings but not 100 per cent sure.
The Syrian regime is known to have stocks of the nerve agent sarin and is alleged to have used a mixture of chlorine and sarin in attacks.
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Ministers have begun leaving Downing Street following a special cabinet meeting called by Theresa May to discuss the UK’s response to alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.
Environment secretary Michael Gove was seen leaving Number 10 shortly after 5.30pm, followed by communities secretary Sajid Javid.
Cabinet members are expected to back the prime minister’s call to join military action threatened by US.
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US House of Representatives speaker Paul Ryan has said the United Sates had an obligation to lead an international response to a suspected chemical attack in Syria and president Donald Trump has the authority to use military force.
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad “and his enablers, Tehran and Moscow, have committed another mass atrocity,” Mr Ryan told reporters. “I think the US has an obligation to lead an international response to hold people accountable for that.”
He said it was not necessary for Congress to give Mr Trump a new authorisation to use military force because the existing one “gives him the authority he needs to do what he may or may not do.”
Mr Trump is holding meetings on the Syria crisis today and has said decisions on what to do would be made “fairly soon”.
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Here are more details on that OPCW fact-finding mission, which is heading to Syria today:
Chemical weapons agency sending a team to Syria
The first group of experts from the global chemical weapons watchdog have travelled to Syria to begin investigating an alleged nerve agent attack, the agency has said. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said the fact-finding mission would arrive in Syria on Thursday and start work in Douma, eastern Ghouta, on Saturday.
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The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed it has a fact-finding mission on its way to Syria. Its team will begin work on Saturday as they look for evidence of an alleged nerve agent attack in Douma.
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Only 22 per cent of Britons back airstrikes on Syria, according to a YouGov survey. Nearly twice as many are opposed, the poll found.
This is despite the fact that 61 per cent of those surveyed believe Damascus did carry out a chemical weapons attack in Douma.
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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.”
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