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Trump cancels South America trip as Syria response looms

Nicholas Kamm, AFP | US President Donald Trump at a meeting with senior military leaders at the White House on April 9, 2018.

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday cancelled an upcoming trip to South America to stay in Washington DC and manage the response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma as the UN prepares to vote on rival Syria resolutions.


Announcing the cancellation Tuesday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump would not attend the 8th Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru or travel to Bogota, Colombia as planned, in order to remain in the US to "oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world".

The decision marks the first time a US president has not attended the summit.

Trump on Monday promised a decision on Syria within hours, declaring that Russia or any other nation found to share responsibility for Saturday's apparent chemical weapons attack on civilians will "pay a price".

The UN Security Council on Tuesday is set to vote on rival US and Russian draft resolutions in response to the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, according to diplomats.

Russia has presented two proposals on chemical weapons use in Syria while the US has put forward its own draft resolution setting up an inquiry that would identify the perpetrators.

The US resolution is widely expected to be vetoed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ally, Russia.

The Syrian government and Russia said there was no evidence that a gas attack had taken place and the claim was bogus.

But the incident has thrust Syria's seven-year-old conflict back to the forefront of international concern.

Chemical weapons watchdog to deploy to Syria

The global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) on Tuesday said it would soon deploy a fact-finding mission to the Syrian town of Douma.

“OPCW’s Director-General, Ambassador Ahmet Üzümcü, has considered the deployment of a Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) team to Douma to establish facts surrounding these allegations,” said a statement released by the Hague-based group.

The OPCW called on the Syrian government to “make the necessary arrangements for such a deployment.

Earlier Tuesday, the Assad regime invited international inspectors to send a team to Syria to investigate the alleged chemical attack in Douma in a move apparently aimed at averting possible Western military action over the incident.

At least 40 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured in Saturday's suspected attack on Douma, then still occupied by rebel forces, according to a Syrian relief group.

Amid mounting international condemnation of Saturday’s attack, the Syrian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said it would will help the OPCW to investigate the alleged attack.

"Syria is keen on cooperating with the OPCW to uncover the truth behind the allegations that some Western sides have been advertising to justify their aggressive intentions," state news agency SANA said, quoting an official Foreign Ministry source.

Evacuation in Douma

Meanwhile on the ground, thousands of militants and their families arrived in rebel-held northwestern Syria after surrendering Douma to government forces. The evacuation deal restores Assad's control over the entire Eastern Ghouta -- formerly the biggest rebel bastion near Damascus.

The deal over the rebel evacuation of Douma took effect on Sunday, hours after medical aid groups reported the suspected chemical attack.

RIA news agency quoted Russia's Defence Ministry as saying 3,600 militants and their families had left Douma over the past 24 hours. About 40,000 militants and their families are expected to leave, the pro-government Watan newspaper said.

Sixty-seven buses carrying hundreds of fighters, along with family members and other civilians who did not wish to come back under Assad's rule, reached opposition areas near Aleppo on Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

As part of the surrender deal, the Jaish al-Islam rebel group that controlled the town released scores of people it had been holding.

Jaish al-Islam's departure will bring to an end the opposition presence in Eastern Ghouta, giving Assad his biggest battlefield victory since late 2016, when he took back Aleppo, and underlining his unassailable position in the war.

France ready to respond

Saturday's attack, however, has once again put the international spotlight on Syria with France saying it would respond if it was proven that Assad's forces carried out the attack. Any riposte would most likely be in coordination with the United States, government aides said.

The British government is also discussing military intervention with its allies in Syria in response to the alleged attack. Prime Minister Theresa May will talk to Trump later on Tuesday.

"That kind of atrocity is not acceptable," International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said. "My prime concern is that we do not have a repeat of those appalling atrocities, and that we are doing everything we can to protect men women and children who are targeted."

US officials told Reuters that Washington was weighing a multinational military response. Washington bombed a Syrian government air base last year over a toxic gas attack.

Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the United States, France and Britain of stoking international tensions by engaging in a "confrontational policy against Russia and Syria".

"Russia is being unpardonably threatened. The tone with which this is being done has gone beyond the threshold of what is acceptable, even during the Cold War."

‘More clarity’

Initial US assessments have been unable to determine conclusively what materials were used in the attack and could not say with certainty that Assad's forces were behind it.

Trump said, however, that Washington was "getting more clarity" on who was responsible.

A previous joint inquiry of the United Nations and the OPCW had found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin in an attack in April 2017, and had also several times used chlorine as a weapon. Damascus blamed Islamic State (IS) group militants for mustard gas use.

The suspected chemical attack came at the end of one of the deadliest Syrian government offensives of the war, with an estimated 1,700 civilians killed in Eastern Ghouta in air and artillery bombardments.

Despite the international revulsion over the chemical weapons attacks, the death toll from such incidents is in the dozens, a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians killed since an uprising against Assad's rule broke out in March 2011.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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