Divided EU desperately seeking joint stand on Syria
VILNIUS (AFP) - European Union foreign ministers gathered on Friday in the Lithuanian capital seeking to overcome deep divisions over US plans to punish Damascus with military action for its alleged chemical weapons use.
"We need a more coordinated approach because the world needs to react," said Lithuanian minister Linas Linkevicius, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, whose country has been left Europe's odd man out in its determination to join a US-led military intervention, was to arrive later in Vilnius, travelling from the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg along with key counterpart from Germany, Guido Westerwelle.
Germany, along with Sweden and southern European nations Italy, Greece and Spain, oppose a military response to the suspected August 21 Syrian chemical attack without a UN mandate and in fear of what could happen "the day after".
Mr Fabius said that France hoped to see the 28-nation EU bloc unanimously condemn the attack near Damascus and agree it was carried out by the Syrian regime.
The very least would be for the EU to secure an agreement that "condemns the usage of chemical weapons and (which) notes that the proof that we have been given shows that it was the regime of Bashar al-Assad which was behind the massacre," he said.
"The question is whether there can be a European stand or whether Europe is incapable of taking a position," Mr Fabius said.
EU defence ministers, also meeting in Vilnius for an informal get-together, earlier on Friday agreed that evidence pointed to President Bashar al-Assad's using chemical weapons in the attack.
"There are many signs that the regime used the (chemical) weapons," Lithuanian Defence Minister Juozas Olekas said.
But although all his fellow ministers "condemned the use of chemical weapons and believed those responsible must be held accountable" there were "a variety of opinions" on what should be done in response, he added.
Influential Swedish minister Carl Bildt raised the possibility of dragging Mr Assad or those responsible for using chemical weapons before the International Criminal Court, a suggestion increasingly mooted in diplomatic circles.
But he also insisted on the absolute need of awaiting the findings of UN inspectors who collected evidence on the site of the attack in a Damascus suburb. Though Washington claimed it already had the proof, it was vital for the rest of the world to obtain the UN view, he said.
Meanwhile Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn summed up the dilemna facing the EU, which is seeking a common foreign policy but threw its divisions into the open already in May, when Britain and France, determined to arm Syria's rebels, effectively put an end to an EU arms embargo.
"It is dramatic, for many countries, to have to choose between America and France on the one hand, who are an example in the interpretation of international law, and the UN's fundamental rules on the other,", he said.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is expected to officially announce the final EU position on Saturday morning after the ministers meet US Secretary of State John Kerry.