World powers step up pressure on Syria, Russia over chemical attacks

2018-01-24 23:06
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands at the start of the talks in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi. The presidents of Turkey and Iran have hailed their trilateral talks with Russia on Syria's future as critical for restoring peace in the war-torn nation. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands at the start of the talks in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi. The presidents of Turkey and Iran have hailed their trilateral talks with Russia on Syria's future as critical for restoring peace in the war-torn nation. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Pool Photo via AP)

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Paris - Two dozen countries agreed on Tuesday to push for sanctions against perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying Russia "ultimately bears responsibility" for such strikes.

Twenty-four nations approved a new "partnership against impunity" for the use of chemical weapons, just a day after reports they were used in an attack that sickened 21 people in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, which Tillerson said was suspected to involve chlorine.

"Whoever conducted the attacks, Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in East Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria," Tillerson said after the international meeting in Paris, and ahead of further talks with ministers from several countries on ending the conflict.

"There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitments to the US as a framework guarantor" overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles, as agreed in September 2013, he added.

READ: Terrified children, empty streets in Syria's Afrin as Turkey attacks

Despite its pledge to destroy such weapons, the Syrian regime has been repeatedly accused of staging chemical attacks, with the UN among those blaming it for an April 2017 sarin gas attack on the opposition-held village of Khan Sheikhun which left scores dead.

Attacks

There have been at least 130 separate chemical weapons attacks in Syria since 2012, according to French estimates, with the Islamic State group also accused of using mustard gas in Syria and Iraq.

Russia twice used its UN veto in November to block an extension of an international expert inquiry into chemical attacks in Syria, to the consternation of Western powers.

Russia's UN ambassador Vassily Nebenzia on Tuesday rejected Tillerson's accusations and instead called for a "truly impartial" international investigation of the chemical attacks.

Moscow, backed by Iran and Turkey, has organised talks in the Russian city of Sochi next week aimed at finding a resolution to the brutal and multifaceted civil war.

Those efforts are running parallel to talks overseen by the UN, with the latest round due in Vienna on Thursday and Friday.

The talks have so far failed to make progress in ending a war that has left more than 340 000 people dead.

Tillerson said: "Russia's failure to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into question its relevance to the resolution of the overall crisis.

"At a bare minimum, Russia must stop vetoing, or at the very least abstain, from future Security Council votes on this issue," he said.

Asset freezes

At Tuesday's meeting, 24 out of 29 countries attending committed to sharing information and compiling a list of individuals implicated in the use of chemical weapons in Syria and beyond.

These could then be hit with sanctions such as asset freezes and entry bans as well as criminal proceedings at the national level.

Ahead of the meeting France announced asset freezes against 25 Syrian companies and executives, as well as French, Lebanese and Chinese businesses accused of aiding regime use of chemical weapons.

"The criminals who take the responsibility for using and developing these barbaric weapons must know that they will not go unpunished," said French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who chaired Tuesday's meeting.

"The current situation cannot continue."

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