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Russian military says Syrian government now in full control of town where alleged chemical attack took place

Western countries are mulling retaliation over the weekend’s gas attack in eastern Ghouta.

File photo of smoke rising after the Syrian army's shelling targeted the Douma district in Eastern Ghouta.
File photo of smoke rising after the Syrian army's shelling targeted the Douma district in Eastern Ghouta.
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Updated at 9am

THE RUSSIAN MILITARY says the Syrian government is now in full control of town on the outskirts of Damascus that was held by the rebels and that was the site of suspected chemical attack over the weekend.

The Defence Ministry said in a statement today that the situation in the town of Douma, just east of the Syrian capital, is “normalising”.

More than 13,500 Syrian rebel fighters and their families have left Douma this month under a so-called evacuation deal between the rebels and the Russian military, a top ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government.

The Russian ministry says 1,500 left the town in the past 24 hours.

There was no immediate confirmation or indication from Assad’s government that Syrian troops entered Douma today.

“Missiles will be coming”

US president Donald Trump warned yesterday that “missiles will be coming” in response to the alleged chemical attack in Douma, as the UN chief urged world powers to stop a face-off with Russia from spiralling out of control.

With punitive US military action seemingly imminent, Russia scrambled to deflect blame from al-Assad and, according to a monitor group, Syrian forces evacuated key defence buildings in Damascus.

Trump’s warlike tweets came in response to a warning from Russia’s ambassador to Beirut, who took to a television network run by the armed group Hezbollah to declare that any US missiles would be shot down “as well as the sources they were fired from”.

If the US action follows the pattern of a previous punitive strike on Syria last year, it will begin with a salvo of cruise missiles fired from American warships in the Mediterranean, as Trump implied when he tweeted they would be “nice, new and ‘smart’”.

Defence Secretary Jim Mattis as well as CIA director Mike Pompeo huddled at the White House yesterday to discuss options and game out the situation.

“The president’s national security team met today. That meeting was chaired by the vice president to discuss a number of options,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

With the UN Security Council failing thus far to find a diplomatic solution, Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned yesterday that time was running out.

Moscow and Washington have so far vetoed each other’s motions to set up an international investigation into chemical weapons use.

Opponents of unilateral US action called an emergency closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council for later today.

The Russian army continued to deny their side’s latest victory came after Assad launched a chemical attack on the last rebel-held pocket of the enclave in the Damascus suburbs, instead accusing the White Helmets civil defence organisation of staging the massacre.

Trump’s spokeswoman dismissed this idea, and pointedly refused to acknowledge that concern about the risks of a direct confrontation with Russia would hold the US military back.

“The intelligence provided certainly paints a different picture,” she said. “The president holds Syria and Russia responsible for this chemical weapons attack.”

But while the Russian president’s lieutenants continued to up the ante with threats and allegations, Vladimir Putin himself adopted a more statesmanlike tone, in remarks to new ambassadors presenting their credentials at the Kremlin.

“The situation in the world is becoming more and more chaotic but all the same we hope that common sense will finally prevail and international relations will take a constructive path,” he said.

OPCW to deploy

Trump and other Western leaders have vowed a quick and forceful response to Saturday’s alleged gas attack, which rescue workers say killed more than 40 people.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has called an emergency cabinet meeting for today, while French President Emmanuel Macron is to decide on a response in the coming days, having insisted he does “not want an escalation” and that any response would focus on Syria’s chemical capabilities, not on allies of the regime.

As it looked to head off the threat of Western strikes, Syria said it had invited the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which has blamed the regime for previous attacks, to visit the site.

The OPCW said it would “shortly” deploy a fact-finding team to Douma for an investigation, but US officials said they were working from their own information and would not necessarily hold back.

Damascus agreed to hand over its chemical arsenal in 2013, narrowly avoiding American and French air strikes in retaliation for a suspected sarin attack.

That incident, which killed hundreds, also took place in Eastern Ghouta.

© – AFP, 2018 With reporting from AP

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