Russia-US tensions — latest updates: Theresa May holds war cabinet meeting ahead of expected Trump attack on Syria

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    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’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.

    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.

    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”.

    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.

    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.

    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”.

    Here are more details on that OPCW fact-finding mission, which is heading to Syria today: 

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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. 

    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. 

    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.

    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.”

    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.

    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.”
    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. 
    Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party, argues MPs must be given a vote on any decision to intervene in Syria. 

    The defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, and culture secretary, Matt Hancock, have also arrived at No 10.

    Amber Rudd, the home secretary, has arrived at No 10 for Theresa May’s emergency cabinet meeting.

    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

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