Russia’s UK ambassador Alexander Yakovenko is giving a press conference in London.
He complains that the UK has refused consular access to Yulia Skripal after she was discharged from hospital. He claims the UK government is deliberately destroying all evidence on the Salisbury incident.
He claims a letter to Boris Johnson about the Skripals has remained unanswered.
Russia tested nerve agent on door handles before Skripal attack
Russia tested the use of door handles as a way of delivering nerve agents and targeted the email accounts of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia since at least 2013, according to previously classified intelligence over the Salisbury attack made public by the UK on Friday.
The UK is making public previously classified intelligence linking Russia to the attack on the Russian double-agent, including claims that Moscow had tested the use of door handles as a way of delivering nerve agents and that Russian military intelligence had targeted the email accounts of both victims since at least 2013.
The claims were made in a letter from Sir Mark Sedwill, the UK’s national security adviser, to the Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg. It is extremely rare for the UK to make such intelligence public.
In the letter, Sedwill, who has an overview of the work of all the UK spy services, filled in some of the intelligence that Theresa May referred to when she made a House of Commons statement saying Russia was “highly likely” to have been behind the attack.
Russia claims Douma attack ‘staged’
In that news conference Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, claimed Moscow had “irrefutable” evidence that the suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria was staged with the help of a foreign secret service, AFP reports.
“We have irrefutable evidence that this was another staged event, and that the secret services of a certain state that is now at the forefront of a Russophobic campaign was involved in this staged event,” he said during a press conference.
He did not provide evidence for the claim.
According to Syrian medics and a statement by the World Health Organisation, more than 40 people died in an 7 April strike on the former rebel outpost of Douma of symptoms consistent with the use of chemical weapons.
The US and its allies believe the Syrian regime was behind the attack, but Russia has long insisted it was staged by rebels in an attempt to provoke further Western intervention.
Russia’s embassy in the UK says it concerned by reports that the cabinet has agreed to take action against Syria.
In a statement it said any airstrikes could hamper the OPCW’s investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons in Douma.
“At the request of the Syrian Government the OPCW sent a fact-finding team to Douma. The experts will arrive tomorrow. Syrian authorities will provide all the relevant security guarantees. Russia is ready to assist in ensuring its safety. We are interested in seeing independent experts there, so they can make all the necessary tests without delay.
The conditions on the ground, now that the Russian military police is present in Douma, are appropriate for conducting investigation of the alleged incident.
Russian services for chemical and radiological security visited the suspected site of the incident and did not find any traces of chemical substances. No persons treated for chemical poisoning were found in local hospitals …
UK statements in favour of an independent investigation clearly contradict those automatically laying the blame on the Syrian government.
Military strikes may be used to cover up all the evidence, or lack thereof, on the ground. Such a decision, if it’s taken, in violation of the international law and the Charter of the United Nations may well mark the latest in the series of the reckless military adventures by the UK …
It’s essential to avoid any steps which could escalate the tensions.
Donald Trump and Theresa May last night discussed the need for a joint response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, according to Woody Johnson, the US ambassador to London.
In a tweet Johnson suggested that any US-led action in Syria would be coordinated with the UK.
Isamael Abdulla, a 31-year-old resident of western Aleppo, says he is constantly monitoring Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.
I’m waiting for his most powerful tweet yet in which declares war against Bashar Al-Assad. The problem with the Syrian crisis is the international community’s hesitation. It has refused to halt the killing machine of the Syrian regime and its deadly supporters in Russia and Iran.
I’m worried that his tweets are merely negotiating tactics.
We are fed up of US red lines that turned to be traffic light warnings. Maybe Trump is waiting for other powers to back his decision, but last time when he attacked Shayrat with 60 missile, he did not wait for any international endorsement.
The US administration and the UN only get upset only when there is a chemical attack, as if other sorts of weapons used to kill people are alright. This daily killing should be stopped as soon as possible.
The only solution for the Syrian problem is a unified world repsonse to disband the foreign support to Bashar and back the Syrian people who have become refugees all over the world.
I support an attack that can change the Syrian regime without causing great loss among civilians. If Bashar stays in power, we will witness more massacres in the future.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has said he hoped that there would be no repeat of the experience of Libya and Iraq in the Syria conflict.
“God forbid anything adventurous will be done in Syria following the Libyan and Iraqi experience,” Lavrov told a news conference on Friday, Reuters reports.
He said that even the smallest miscalculation in Syria could lead to new waves of migrants and that ultimatums and threats do not help the dialogue.
Russia and the United States are using their channels of communications on Syria, according to the minister.
Lavrov also questioned the UK claims that the OPCW report into the Salisbury poisoning confirmed its analysis of the incident. He said this was an “overstated” interpretation of the OPCW’s report.
The Labour leader has asked for a security briefing – on privy council terms – on Syria, but it is understood no response has been received from Number 10.
Labour are also actively exploring ways to bring a debate on any military action to parliament, but will have difficulty forcing a Commons vote. The party does not have any scheduled opposition debates next week.
It could potentially force an SO24 emergency topical debate – a technical procedure which would allow the House to vote on whether there should be a vote to authorise military action.
But the vote would not be binding on the government, which has shown over the past six months it is minded to abstain and effectively ignore opposition motions.
Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has told Sky News it will protect its people on the ground in Syria if missiles are launched by the US and its allies.
She said: “Russia should protect its people on the ground, of course. We came to Syria at the invitation of the people. You can see their appreciation on the ground.”
Zakharova also criticised Donald Trump warning in a tweet that Russia should “get ready” because missiles “will be coming, new and new and ‘smart’”.
“I was surprised that such strong messages were sent through social media because this should be a time to phone your partner … We can resolve all these problems by picking up the phone, not by force.”
Bassam Abu Abdullah, an advisor to Syrian Ministry of Information, has again denied that the Syrian army attacked civilians with chemical weapon.
Speaking to BBC News he said: “We didn’t use and we will not use any kind of chemical weapons because we don’t have these kind of chemical weapons after 2013. We joined the international agreement on the prohibition of chemical weapons.”
Abdullah claimed videos appearing to show the aftermath of the suspected attack on Douma were “fabricated”.
He said: “The source of these films said that 10 people died and 600 were injured. Where are these people? Can you show us them? What are their names? Nothing.”
“We are ready to receive the investigators from the OPCW and show them anything they want. We have nothing to cover.”
On the threat of US-led military strikes he said:
“We are not ready to give any opportunity for the US, France or Britain to attack us. We are defending ourselves. We are not attacking British interests. We are not a threat to the national security of the US or France or Britain. This is our right to defend our state. We are combatting terrorists, we are not combatting democratic people. Who left Eastern Gouta? They are terrorists from Jaish al-Islam the Wahhabi movement.”
Thousands of Islamist fighters and their relatives left Douma as the last evacuations from Eastern Ghouta continued, AFP reports citing the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
The fighters from the Jaish al-Islam group left overnight with thousands of civilians on board 85 buses that took them to areas of northern Syria still held by rebels.
The evacuations are part of a deal brokered by Damascus’s Russian ally to re-establish regime control on Eastern Ghouta, a area just on the edge of the capital that had escaped government control since 2012.
“After midnight, 85 buses left Eastern Ghouta carrying 4,000 people, both fighters and civilians,” the SOHR.
“Over the past few days, most of the Jaish al-Islam fighters have left Douma in four successive waves,” the Britain-based monitor’s head, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.
The group was the last in the erstwhile besieged Ghouta enclave to resist the exit proposed by Russia but an alleged chemical attack by the regime on 7 April appeared to break their will.
The government has consistently denied the attack and a delegation of experts from the OPCW chemical watchdog arrived in Damascus to investigate.
They are expected to start their work on Saturday.
“The evacuation operation should wrap up before the OPCW experts enter Douma,” Abdel Rahman said.
Russia’s deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich has said international relations should not depend on the mood of one person when he wakes up in the morning, according Russian news agency reports cited by Reuters.
In an early-morning tweet on Wednesday, Trump warned that missiles “will be coming” in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by Syrian government forces. Russia is Syria’s most important military ally in the country’s civil war.
“We cannot depend on the mood of someone on the other side of the ocean when he wakes up, on what a specific person takes into his head in the morning,” Dvorkovich said at a forum in Krasnoyarsk, according to the Tass news agency.
“We cannot take such risks.”
In another tweet on Thursday, Trump appeared to cast doubt on at least the timing of any US-led military action. “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” it said.
Trump usually starts tweeting in the next hour or so.
Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah does not believe the latest Syria crisis will spiral into a wider war, its deputy leader has said, Reuters reports.
The heavily armed Shia Hezbollah movement has been a vital military ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the seven-year war.
“We rule out the situation developing into a direct American-Russian clash or a wide state of war,” Sheikh Naim Qassem told Lebanese daily al-Joumhouria in an interview.
“The conditions do not point to a total war happening … unless (U.S. President Donald) Trump and (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu completely lose their minds,” he said.
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogăn has warned Russia and the US against treating the Syrian conflict as a proxy war.
“No one has the right to engulf the Mediterranean and the Syrian lands in the fire of their political and military power struggles,” he said at speech in Ankara.
Erdogăn has discussed his concerns about Syria in separate phone calls with both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in the last 48 hours.
In his speech he said: “We are extremely uncomfortable about the fact that some countries who have confidence on their military power are using Syria as their arm-wrestling field.”
He claimed that the international community had used the fight against Islamic state (or Daesh) to support Kurdish separatists.
He said: “We see even a single terrorist, whether it be from Daesh or PYD (the Kurdish Democratic Union Party) or under any other name, along our borders as a threat to us and consider it a condition for our survival to do what is necessary.”
“Our relations with Russia, Iran and China are complementary to our relations with the West, not an alternative. Yet, this is not an obstacle to us expressing the wrongs of the two sides in other fields. Those who support the murderous Assad regime are wrong. Those who support the PYD terror are wrong. We will fight against both of these wrongs to the end.”
France’s foreign ministry has produced a video, translated into English, setting out why it thinks France has a duty to react to the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It also repeats President Emmanuel Macron’s claim in a TV interview on Thursday that France has proof that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in Douma.
Such simple and short videos, tailored for social media, are all the rage in modern diplomacy. Here’s the Foreign Office’s take on the OPCW’s report into the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
The US thinktank the Institute for the Study of War has been tracking reports of military movements of Russia and Syria since last weekend’s chemical attack on Douma.
It has this summary:
Two Russian Su-24M ‘Fencer’ attack aircraft conducted several low-altitude passes in close proximity to the USS Donald Cook and the French frigate Aquitaine in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea on April 11. The Russian Navy conducted a firing drilloff the Syrian coast in a likely attempt to deter U.S. and allied naval maneuvers near Syria on April 11.
Russia reportedly deployed four Tu-95MS ‘Bear’ and Tu-160M ‘Blackjack’ strategic bombers as well as an unspecified number of Il-78M tanker aircraft from the Engels Air Base in Southern Russia. Their final destination is unknown although they may be bound for Syria or theHamedan Air Basein Western Iran. Russia previously targeted locations in Eastern Syria from the Engels Air Base.
Russian and regime forces enhanced the air defenses around Syria’s capital, Damascus, where the regime conducted its chemical weapons attack on April 7. Pro-regime forces deployed short- to medium-range surface-to-air missiles, including six Russian Pantsir-S2s, to theMezzeh Military Air Baseand other sites in Damascus. Pro-regime officials also reportedly issued an alert to the Syrian Arab Army to evacuate personnel and assets from military bases across Syria.
Regime and Russian aircraft relocatedcloser to heavily-defended commercial airfields across Syria. Aircraft relocated from the Seen (Sayqal), Dumayr, Shayrat, and the T-4 (Tiyas) Air Bases to the Bassel al Assad International Airport in Latakia Province, the Nayrab Air Base outside Aleppo City, and the Damascus International Airport.
Iranian proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah, reportedly began exiting Syria. Hezbollah reportedly relocated a number of fighters from Syria into Lebanon. Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies reportedly also entered Iraq from positions along the Syria-Iraq border, including Abu Kamal in Eastern Syria.
Unspecified pro-regime elements reportedly evacuated a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in Jamraya near Damascus. The SSRC is a Syrian government body responsible for research and development on advanced weapons systems, including ballistic missiles and chemical weapons.
Russia’s Black Sea fleet is in closer proximity to the Syrian coast than US forces amid reports that the fleet has been on a heightened level of alert since at least mid-March, writes Peter Beaumont.
The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, has struggled to defend Labour’s call for a UN-led inspection into the Douma attack.
Asked on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether Labour would back intervention if the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons confirms chemical weapons had been used she said: “Let’s see what the inspectors come up with. Even in the US there is an understanding that we don’t have all the evidence.”
When it was pointed out that Russia had repeatedly vetoed calls for a UN-led investigation into the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Abbott said: “There has to be a political negotiation. We would press on trying to bring people to the table. We believe more bombing is not the answer to the crisis in Syria.”
“There is a response which falls short of more bombing. We believe there needs to be a coordinated international drive to achieve a ceasefire and a negotiated political settlement.”
Asked about the circumstances in which Labour would support military action, Abbott cited the Second World War. But she repeatedly refused to say what circumstances she would back military action now.
“There is no evidence to show that further bombing in Syria will make the region more stable,” she said.
She was also asked which country posed the biggest threat to world peace: Russia or the US. After trying to avoid the question she eventually said: “It is clear that at this point Russia, its role in Syria, what we believe beyond reasonable doubt its role in the poison gas attack in Salisbury, is a greater threat to world peace than the United States.”
A split in the shadow cabinet over military action in Syria has emerged.
Shadow International Development Secretary Kate Osamor told the House magazine that “intervention must take place” if the UN concludes the Syrian government was behind the alleged atrocity.
Politics Home reports her saying: “If a leader is killing their own they need to be removed. We don’t keep them there. They need to go. He needs to be removed.
“Intervention must take place if evidence comes back that the PM or the president or whoever the leader is, is gassing his own people. Get them out.
“If a leader is killing their own they need to be removed. We don’t keep them there. They need to go. He needs to be removed.”
“But I suppose what we’ve seen is it’s not as easy as that. And I think that’s where Jeremy’s position comes from. It’s not as easy as just removing someone.”
Update: Osamar has since clarified her remarks to claim she is not advocating military action in Syria.
There are growing calls for the government to give parliament a vote before launching any military intervention in Syria.
A Downing Street statement issued after Thursday’s cabinet meeting made no reference to whether MPs should be given a say.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable and Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP in Westminster have both urged May to give MPs a vote.
Ken Clarke, former chancellor and father of the House of Commons, said parliament should be recalled this weekend. “You don’t just waive aside accountability to parliament because it is inconvenient. Saturday or Sunday you could sit,” he told the BBC.
In a letter to May, SNP defence spokesman Stewart McDonald said:
I am not convinced that the retaliatory airstrikes being proposed by the United States is a proper way forward. Though should the UK government wish to participate then it must only do so if the UK parliament gives its consent. This is a view shared by a cross-party group of MPs who have signed EDM 92 to that effect, and a number of your own colleagues who have put forward this view in the media these past few days.
Despite Donald Trump’s slightly more circumspect rhetoric over Syria on Thursday it is hard to escape the drum beat for military intervention.
The Times claims the largest US air and naval strike force since the 2003 Iraq war is heading towards Syria.
Last night the UK cabinet unanimously backed Theresa May’s warning that Syria’s use of chemical weapons could not go unchallenged, leaving the way open for British participation in military action.
Downing Street said senior ministers had agreed it was highly likely the Syrian government was responsible for the “shocking and barbaric” gas attack on the rebel-held town of Douma, which killed up to 75 people.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused the government of “waiting for instructions” from Donald Trump adding that military intervention risks “escalating an already devastating conflict”.
In a statement issue early on Friday morning he called for a UN-led investigation of the chemical weapons attack in Douma.
“Further UK military intervention in Syria’s appalling multi-sided war risks escalating an already devastating conflict.
“The Government appears to be waiting for instructions from President Donald Trump on how to proceed. But the US administration is giving alarmingly contradictory signals.
“Even US defence secretary James Mattis has said we ‘don’t have evidence’ and warned further military action could ‘escalate out of control’.”
Meanwhile, Russia has been granted a request for the United Nations Security Council to meet on Friday for fresh discussions on the threat to international peace from air strikes on Syria.
And a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is due to start its investigation in Syria on Saturday.
On Friday campaigners from the Stop the War Coalition will hand in a letter signed by MPs, trade unionists, celebrities and academics to Downing Street urging May to not take military action in Syria.
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