EU urges ‘strong response’ to Syria attack

US Secretary of State Kerry welcomes statement, but EU ministers stop short of endorsing military action.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, has said that “a clear and strong response” must be delivered on the use of chemical weapon weapons in Syria, but has urged those advocating military strikes to wait for a UN inspectors’ report.

Speaking in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, on Saturday, Ashton said that the EU’s 28 governments agreed that available information showed strong evidence that the Syrian government was responsible for an alleged chemical weapons attack on civilians on August 21 that killed hundreds.

“[The Syrian government] is the only one that possesses chemical weapons agents and the means of their delivery in a sufficient quantity,” Ashton told reporters as she read out a joint statement prepared by the ministers.

‘War crime’

Ashton said the August 21 attack was a “blatant violation of international law, a war crime and a crime against humanity” and that the ministers “were unanimous in condemning in the strongest terms this horrific attack”.

The ministers agreed, she said, that the world “cannot remain idle” and said a clear and strong response was needed to prevent any future use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The ministers stopped short, however, of explicitly supporting military action against Syria, as proposed by the United States, France and others.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, in Vilnius trying to make the US administration’s case for a strike, thanked the EU for a “strong statement about the need for accountability”.

Kerry said he would share his counterparts’ concern with US officials, but at a later press event in Paris said that President Obama had not yet made a decision on whether or not to wait for the inspectors report before ordering any action.

Kerry was speaking after meeting French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who said that carrying out a military strike against Bashar al-Assad’s regime “is not at odds with a political solution […] Assad will not participate in negotiations as long as he sees himself as invincible”.

Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from Paris, said that Fabius addressed a domestic audience with some of his remarks.

“One of the most interesting points made by the French foreign minister was to defend against accusations that France has isolated itself on global stage. What he failed to mention of course is that no other states than France and the US have gone so far as to say that they will militarily intervene,” he said.

President Barack Obama has asked the US Congress to approve the use of force in Syria, and on Saturday announced that he will be doing a series of television interviews ahead of a nationwide televised address on Tuesday. A final vote in the US Senate is expected at the end of the coming week. A US House of Representatives vote is likely the week of September 16.

Ashton said EU ministers welcomed French President Francois Hollande’s earlier commitment to wait for a report by United Nations inspectors on the August 21 attack before taking any action.

“The EU underscores […] the need to move forward with addressing the Syrian crisis through the UN process,” she said.

The US says that 1,429 people were killed in the August 21 attack, while aid agencies have confirmed at least 355 deaths, with thousands more wounded.

Fighting rages in Syria

Meanwhile, fighting continues on the ground in Syria, where rebels and government forces have continued to battle for control of the mainly Christian town of Maaloula, according to a UK-based anti-government rights group.

“There are clashes just inside the town in the western district between [a pro-government militia group] and rebel forces,” Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.

“There are also clashes between soldiers backed by militias and rebel fighters around the area of one of the entrances to Maaloula,” he said.

The fighting on the outskirts of the town started with an army attack on a group of rebels in a hotel on a nearby hill.

State television, meanwhile, citing a military source, said the army had targeted the hotel and surrounding positions where “terrorists” were stationed, killing several and destroying their weapons.

Elsewhere in Syria, the Observatory said on Saturday that 14 rebels and two civilians were killed in government shelling of the Kiswa and Maqbaliya, two areas south of Damascus.

The group also reported bombardments in Zamalka, east of Damascus, as well as Daraya and Moadamiyat al-Sham in the southern outskirts of the capital.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies