Wednesday 17 January 2018

US fabricated chemical attack, says Assad

Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with AFP in the capital Damascus. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with AFP in the capital Damascus. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
A man carrying a child following a suspected chemical attack, at a makeshift hospital in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Syria. Photo: AP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrive to attend a press conferece after their talks in Moscow on April 12

Josie Ensor in Beirut

Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has accused the US of fabricating last week's chemical attack to justify a military strike, even as British investigators confirmed the use of toxic sarin gas.

In his first interview since the attack on the northern opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which left 86 dead and hundreds injured, Mr Assad said his regime could not be responsible as it was no longer in possession of any chemical weapons.

"Our impression is that the West, mainly the United States, is hand-in-glove with the terrorists," Mr Assad told the AFP news agency, referring to rebels who control the area.

"It fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack.

"It's stage one, the play [they staged] that we saw on social network and TVs, then propaganda and then stage two, the military attack," he said, questioning the authenticity of the video footage which drew international outrage.

"We don't know whether those dead children were killed in Khan Sheikhoun. Were they dead at all?"

He said the opposition-held town had no strategic value and was not currently a battle front.

The bombing prompted US President Donald Trump to order the first major military action of his presidency, launching dozens of cruise missiles at the airfield from where the chemical attack was believed to have been launched.

The Syrian president insisted once again that the regime gave up its entire stockpile to the UN's Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2013 after the last major chemical attack.

"There was no order to make any attack . . . we gave up our arsenal a few years ago. Even if we have them, we wouldn't use them," Mr Assad said.

The Syrian government and its Russian backer claims the victims were killed by toxic agents released from a rebel chemical arsenal hit by Syrian warplanes.

However, an American official countered that US intelligence had intercepted communications from members of the regime and its chemical experts talking about preparations for the bombing of Khan Sheikhoun. The intercepts were part of an immediate review of all intelligence in the hours after the attack to confirm responsibility and have only now been analysed, the unnamed official told CNN.

Nothing in the messages confirms that Russian officials had any knowledge ahead of the attack.

The Syrian president's comments came as a British delegation at the OPCW finished testing on samples from victims of the attack who had been treated in Turkey.

They said yesterday that they tested positive for nerve agent sarin, or a "sarin-like substance". However, the OPCW's fact finding mission is not expected to report its full findings for another three weeks.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain believed the Syrian regime carried out the chemical attack.

"We believe it is highly likely that the attack was carried out by the Assad regime," she said in a televised statement.

"Apart from anything else, we believe it's the only regime that has the capability to make such an attack."

Mrs May said Russia was on the "wrong side of history" supporting the dictator and attempting to cover up his responsibility.

On Wednesday, Russia vetoed a draft resolution brought by the UK, US and France to condemn the killings and to call for an independent investigation.

It was the eighth Russian veto of a resolution on Syria throughout the course of its civil war.

Kenneth D. Ward, the American ambassador to the OPCW, accused Moscow of "abetting" the Syrian government by continuing to block attempts to get to "the truth".

Relations between Moscow, one of Mr Assad's few international allies, and Washington are at their most fraught since the Cold War.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said ties had worsened under President Trump, a prospect which would once have been difficult to imagine given his incredibly strained relationship with his predecessor, Barack Obama.

"Right now we're not getting along with Russia at all," Mr Trump said flatly during a White House news conference. It was stark evidence that the president is moving ever further from his campaign promises to establish better ties with Moscow.

However, Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, on Wednesday called for a new era of co-operation between the world's nuclear powers during a visit to Moscow, saying they could not afford for relations to deteriorate further.

A misdirected airstrike on Tuesday by the US-led coalition killed 18 allied fighters battling Isil in Raqqa, northern Syria, the US military said yesterday.

Elsewhere, Britain's GCHQ tipped-off security services in the US about alleged meetings between Mr Trump's presidential campaign team and potential Russian spies, it has been claimed.

A source close to UK intelligence said that the listening post had become aware at the end of 2015 of possible "interactions" and that this information was then sent across the Atlantic.

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