British prime minister and US president agree that alleged chemical attack 'requires a response'
David Cameron and Barack Obama moved the west closer to military intervention in Syria on Saturday as they agreed that last week's alleged chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime had taken the crisis into a new phase that merited a "serious response".
In a phone call that lasted 40 minutes, the two leaders are understood to have concluded that the regime of Bashar al-Assad was almost certainly responsible for the assault that is believed to have killed as many as 1,400 people in Damascus in the middle of last week. Cameron was speaking from his holiday in Cornwall.
The prime minister and US president said time was running out for Assad to allow UN weapons inspectors into the areas where the attack took place. Government sources said the two leaders agreed that all options should be kept open, both to end the suffering of the Syrian people and to make clear that the west could not stand by as chemical weapons were used on innocent civilians.
A spokesman for No 10 said: "The prime minister and President Obama are both gravely concerned by the attack that took place in Damascus on Wednesday and the increasing signs that this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people. The UN security council has called for immediate access for UN investigators on the ground in Damascus. The fact that President Assad has failed to co-operate with the UN suggests that the regime has something to hide.
"They reiterated that significant use of chemical weapons would merit a serious response from the international community and both have tasked officials to examine all the options. They agreed that it is vital that the world upholds the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons and deters further outrages. They agreed to keep in close contact on the issue."
The dramatic upping of the stakes came after the international medical charity Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) reported that three hospitals in Damascus had received approximately 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms in less than three hours on the morning of Wednesday, 21 August. Of those patients, 355 are reported to have died.
Dr Bart Janssens, MSF's director of operations, said: "Medical staff working in these facilities provided detailed information to MSF doctors regarding large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress."
He said the reported symptoms strongly indicated "mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons."
France's foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said on Saturday that "all the information at our disposal converges to indicate that there was a chemical massacre near Damascus and that the [regime of Bashar al-Assad] is responsible".
The foreign secretary, William Hague, said last week that "this is a chemical attack by the Assad regime" and "not something that a humane or civilised world can ignore".
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SOURCE: The Guardian
Martin Chulov in Beirut and Toby Helm