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Syrian gas attack: Western countries take aim at Syria, Russia during emergency UN meeting

ABC News logo ABC News 5/04/2017

Western countries have angrily condemned the Syrian Government during an emergency UN Security Council meeting, blaming it for a gas attack that killed more than 70 people.

"Assad, Russia and Iran have no interest in peace. The illegitimate Syrian Government, led by a man with no conscience, has committed untold atrocities against his people," US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told the 15-member council.

Ms Haley issued what appeared to be a threat of unilateral action if Security Council members could not agree.

"When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action," Ms Haley said.

She did not signal what sort of action could be taken.

Western countries blamed President Bashar al-Assad's armed forces for the attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in a rebel-held area of northern Syria hit by government air strikes. Syria's Government denied responsibility.

In February, Syrian ally Russia, backed by China, cast its seventh veto to protect Mr Assad's Government from council action, blocking a bid by Western powers to impose sanctions over accusations of chemical weapons attacks.

Deputy Russian UN ambassador Vladimir Safronkov told the council that former US president Barack Obama's 2012 threat of military action if a "red line" was crossed and chemical weapons were used in Syria had provoked such attacks.

"That decision served as a starting point for future provocations by terrorists and extremist structures with the use of chemical weapons, they sought to discredit the official Damascus regime and to create a pretext for the use of military force against a sovereign state," Mr Safronkov said.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 5: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley holds up photos of victims of the Syrian chemical attack during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council at U.N. headquarters, April 5, 2017 in New York City. © Drew Angerer/Getty Images NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 5: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley holds up photos of victims of the Syrian chemical attack during a meeting of the United Nations Security Council at U.N. headquarters, April 5, 2017 in New York City. US President Donald Trump faulted Mr Obama on Tuesday for failing to enforce the red line. Mr Obama's spokesman declined to comment.

"We're talking about war crimes," French UN ambassador Francois Delattre said.

"We urge Russia to exert much stronger pressure to the regime ... Frankly we also need an America that is seriously committed to a solution in Syria and that puts all its weight behind it," he said.

US intelligence dismisses Russian claims

US intelligence officials, based on a preliminary assessment, think the deaths were most likely caused by sarin nerve gas dropped by Syrian aircraft.

But Moscow offered an alternative explanation: that the poison gas belonged to rebels and had leaked from an insurgent weapons depot hit by Syrian bombs.

A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russian explanation was not credible.

"We don't believe it," the official said. Mr Trump described the attack as "horrible" and "unspeakable" and called it a "terrible affront to humanity" that had "crossed a lot of lines".

Asked whether he was formulating a new policy towards Syria, Mr Trump told reporters: "You'll see".

'What is your plan?' Speaking in the council, British UN ambassador Matthew Rycroft asked Russia: "What is your plan? What is your plan to stop these horrific senseless attacks? We had a plan and we had the support and you rejected it to protect Assad."

Mr Safronkov responded by saying Russia has more than one plan, but the first one is to fight terrorism.

Mr Rycroft said those vetoes sent Mr Assad a message of encouragement and Tuesday's attack was "the consequence".

An investigation by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found Syrian government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015 and that Islamic State militants had used mustard gas.

The United States, Britain and France have proposed a draft UN Security Council resolution that would pin the blame on Damascus, and push Syria to provide an international inquiry with flight plans and logs for Tuesday, the names of all helicopter squadron commanders and access to air bases.

Russia has described the draft resolution as "unacceptable" and based on "fake information".

Mr Assad had agreed in 2013 to give up his chemical arsenal under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States.

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