UK & World News
Syria: Regime 'Ready To Retaliate' To Strike
Syria expects a military attack "at any moment" after UN chemical weapons inspectors left the country, a security official has said.
A UN team investigating an alleged gas attack crossed the Lebanese border on Saturday and have now arrived back in the Netherlands, heightening expectations of a possible US-led strike against President Bashar al Assad's forces.
A Syrian official told AFP: "We are expecting an attack at any moment. We are ready to retaliate at any moment."
Syrian prime minister Wael al Halqi added: "The Syrian army is fully ready, its finger on the trigger to face any challenge or scenario that they want to carry out."
Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the inspectors' departure by challenging the US to present evidence of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime to the UN Security Council.
He said it would be "utter nonsense" for the Syrian government to use chemical weapons when it was winning the war, and urged US President Barack Obama not to attack Syrian forces.
Mr Putin said: "I am convinced that it (the chemical attack) is nothing more than a provocation by those who want to drag other countries into the Syrian conflict, and who want to win the support of powerful members of the international arena, especially the United States."
The 13-strong UN team left their hotel in Damascus in seven vehicles and then crossed the border into Lebanon, where they have arrived at Beirut international airport.
Yesterday, they finished collecting samples from the site of an alleged gas attack that the US claims killed more than 1,400 people, which they will now take to The Hague to be analysed.
A UN spokesman stressed that all available information, including lab analysis of the samples, had to be evaluated "before the mission can draw any conclusions about the incident".
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has told Security Council members that may take two weeks.
His spokesman Martin Nesirky said the weapons inspectors had been able to conduct a "wide range of fact-finding activities" in Damascus, adding: "The Secretary General has expressed his sincere appreciation to the UN team for their exceptional bravery and professionalism."
The inspectors left hours after the US outlined the evidence it believes proves Mr Assad's forces were behind the attack.
An intelligence report blamed Syria's government for the attack with "high confidence" and said it was "highly unlikely" the atrocity was plotted by rebels.
It said 1,429 people were killed, including 426 children, based on an assessment using "multiple" streams of intelligence.
The Assad regime has denied using chemical weapons, saying the assault was carried out by rebels, and dismissed the US report as "entirely fabricated".
President Obama is preparing for a possible military strike in response to the attack, with senior officials from his administration due to hold unclassified conference calls with Republican and Democratic senators on Saturday.
He said he has not made a final decision on attacking Syria but was mulling a "narrow and limited" strike.
"We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale," he told reporters at the White House.
Any attack, most likely with cruise missiles from five US Navy destroyers already stationed in the eastern Mediterranean, had been considered improbable before UN experts left the country.
On Friday night, America revealed that a sixth US warship - the USS San Antonio - is now operating in the eastern Mediterranean to provide support for the destroyers.
Veto-holding members of the United Nations are at odds over a draft Security Council resolution that would authorise "all necessary force" in response to the alleged gas attack.
US Secretary of State John Kerry insisted America was not alone in its quest to punish the Syrian regime, citing the support of France, America's "oldest ally".
Britain dropped out of the coalition planning aerial strikes after Prime Minister David Cameron failed to win parliamentary backing for military action.
Even so, hundreds of people are taking part in a Stop the War protest in central London
While Germany and Canada also ruled out joining any attack, France said the British decision would not affect its stance.
French President Francois Hollande said he still supported taking "firm" punitive action over an attack that had caused "irreparable" harm to the Syrian people.
He does not need parliamentary approval for any military action that lasts less than four months.
More than 100,000 people have died since the conflict erupted in March 2011 and two million have become refugees, half of them children, according to the UN.