President Donald Trump cast doubt on Thursday over the timing of his threatened strike on Syria in response to a reported poison gas attack, while France said it had proof of Syria's guilt but needed to gather more information.
Fears of confrontation between Russia and the West have been running high since Trump said on Wednesday that missiles "will be coming" after the suspected chemical weapons attack in the Syrian town of Douma on April 7, and lambasted Moscow for standing by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!" the U.S. president said in his early morning tweet.
French President Emmanuel Macron said France has proof the Syrian government carried out the attack, which aid groups have said killed dozens of people, and will decide whether to strike back when all the necessary information has been gathered.
"We have proof that last week ... chemical weapons were used, at least with chlorine, and that they were used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad," Macron said, without offering details of any evidence.
"We will need to take decisions in due course, when we judge it most useful and effective," he told broadcaster TF1.
May recalled ministers from their Easter holiday to debate action over what she has cast as a barbaric poison gas attack in Douma, then rebel-held, just east of the capital Damascus.
There were signs, though, of a global effort to head off a direct confrontation between Russia and the West. The Kremlin said a crisis communications link with the United States, created to avoid an accidental clash over Syria, was in use.
"The situation in Syria is horrific, the use of chemical weapons is something the world has to prevent," Britain's Brexit minister David Davis said. “But also it’s a very, very delicate circumstance and we've got to make this judgment on a very careful, very deliberate, very well thought-through basis.”
Syria's military has repositioned some air assets to avoid missile strikes, US officials told Reuters. Locating them alongside Russian military hardware might make Washington reluctant to hit them.
Russia, Assad's most important ally in his seven-year-old war with rebels, said it had deployed military police in Douma on Thursday after the town was taken over by government forces. “They are the guarantors of law and order in the town,” RIA news agency quoted Russia's defence ministry as saying.
Assad said any Western action "will contribute nothing but an increase in instability in the region, threatening international peace and security", Syrian state TV reported.
Rebels blame ‘chemical attack’ for retreat
A top Syrian rebel official said that his faction only agreed to abandon its battered enclave outside Damascus because of an alleged toxic gas attack. "Of course, the chemical attack is what pushed us to agree" to a withdrawal from Douma, said Yasser Dalwan, a high-ranking member of Jaish al-Islam. It was the first public acknowledgement by Jaish al-Islam of a deal reached for Douma, their last rebel holdout in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus. AFP