France and US to work on response to Syria gas attack

PARIS • France said it would work closely with the United States on a response to last Saturday's suspected chemical attack in Syria, and that both countries agreed responsibility for the strike must be established.

The international chemical weapons watchdog, meanwhile, was trying to determine yesterday whether dozens of people were gassed to death in the attack on the rebel-held town of Douma, outside the capital Damascus.

French President Emmanuel Macron and his US counterpart Donald Trump agreed during a call on Sunday that chemical agents were used in the April 7 attack, the Elysee Palace said.

The assault on Douma will be a test of Mr Macron's credibility after he issued repeated warnings that "France will strike" if it is proven chemical attacks have been used with lethal effect in Syria.

The French readout of the conversation stopped short of apportioning blame on forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the attack, which one Syrian aid agency said killed at least 60 people.

The White House readout was more robust. It said the two leaders had agreed "the Assad regime must be held accountable for its continued human rights abuses", and pledged to "coordinate a strong, joint response".

The US launched a missile strike on a Syrian airbase a year ago in response to the killing of civilians in a sarin gas attack in an opposition-held town in north-west Syria. That gas attack was blamed on Mr Assad.

US government sources said Washington's assessment of last Saturday's attack was that chemical weapons were used. The European Union also said evidence pointed to the use of chemical weapons by Mr Assad's forces.

The UN Security Council was to meet twice yesterday following rival requests by Russia and the US.

Mr Assad has won back control of nearly all of eastern Ghouta in a Russian-backed military campaign that began in February, leaving just Douma in rebel hands.

The Kremlin yesterday warned against jumping to conclusions over the attack, after Moscow said its experts had found no traces of chemical weapons.

UN war crimes investigators had previously documented 33 chemical attacks in Syria, attributing 27 to the Assad government, which has repeatedly denied using the weapons.

Mr Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said the international agency was seeking to establish whether chemical weapons were used in Douma.

A group of international aid agencies, the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, said at least 60 people had been killed in the town and more than 1,000 injured in several sites.

The toll is likely to rise, the group said. "The numbers keep rising as relief workers struggle to gain access to the subterranean areas where gas has entered and hundreds of families had sought refuge."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2018, with the headline 'France and US to work on response to Syria gas attack'. Print Edition | Subscribe