Middle East

France's Hollande backs US on Syria action

France is still ready to take action in Syria alongside the US, despite UK MPs blocking British involvement, President Francois Hollande has said.

He told Le Monde newspaper a strike within days could not be ruled out.

The US says it will continue to seek a coalition, and President Barack Obama is meeting his national security team.

The UN is investigating claims that the Syrian forces of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons. Mr Assad denies the claims, blaming rebels.

UN chemical weapons inspectors visited a hospital in a government-controlled area of Damascus on Friday.

The UN says the whole team will leave Syria on Saturday. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the inspectors will then brief him on their preliminary findings.

Syrian officials say they will reject any "incomplete report" from the UN before the results of laboratory tests are known.

A UN spokesman later said the experts would try to "expedite" the report, but said no conclusions would be drawn until the full tests had been completed.

'France is ready'

Mr Ban met the five permanent members of the Security Council in New York earlier.

They have held talks twice already this week, but after the last meeting on Thursday, diplomats said they were "far apart".

Mr Ban was expected to give the US, UK, France, Russia and China more information about the timetable for the findings of the weapons inspectors.

Mr Hollande said the UK vote, in which parliament rejected a government motion supporting the principle of military action, made no difference to France's position.

"Each country is sovereign to participate or not in an operation. That is valid for Britain as it is for France," he said.

He said that if the UN Security Council was unable to act, a coalition would form including the Arab League and European countries.

"But there are few countries which can have the capacity of enforcing any sanction through the appropriate measures," he said.

"France will be part of it. France is ready."

He ruled out strikes while the UN inspectors were in Syria. However he did not rule out the possibility that military action could be taken before next Wednesday, when the French parliament is due to debate the issue.

Neither France nor the US need parliamentary approval for action, and Secretary of State John Kerry said the US could not be held to the foreign policy of others.

The UK vote was welcomed in Russia, Syria's main international ally.

Moscow said it reflected a growing public understanding of the dangers of an attack.

And the BBC's Jeremy Bowen in Damascus says Syrian MPs are delighted with the UK vote.

He says they believe a letter they sent to the UK parliament inviting their British counterparts to inspect the evidence of chemical attacks had helped sway the vote against military action.

China, which has vetoed previous UN Security Council resolutions against Syria, reiterated on Friday that no action should be taken until the UN inspectors have reported on their findings.

And Germany said of military action that "such participation has not been sought nor is it being considered".

'Beyond doubt'

Officials in the US and UK had been insistent throughout the week that the Assad regime had carried out a poison-gas attack in eastern Damascus on 21 August in which hundreds were killed.

However British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament on Thursday he could not be 100% sure.

In the US, government officials briefed a Congressional committee on the case for launching action against Mr Assad's forces.

Eliot Engel, the top Democratic member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters after the briefing that officials had said it was "beyond a doubt that chemical weapons were used, and used intentionally by the Assad regime".

Mr Engel said officials had cited evidence including "intercepted communications from high-level Syrian officials".

Reports in the US media this week described Syrian officials suggesting in phone conversations that the chemical weapons attack had been more devastating than was intended.

A Syrian general who defected and fled to Turkey last year told the BBC in Istanbul that the current head of the regime's chemical weapons programme had been killed.

Gen Adnan Sillu, who said he had once been head of the programme, claimed that his successor, Gen Mohamed Aslan, was responsible for last week's attack in Damascus.

Gen Sillu said Gen Aslan had been killed as part of the regime's attempt to destroy evidence of the attack.

His claim could not be independently verified.

More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died since the conflict erupted in Syria in March 2011, and the conflict has produced at least 1.7 million refugees.

Syria map

Forces which could be used against Syria:

Four US destroyers - USS Gravely, USS Ramage, USS Barry and USS Mahan - are in the eastern Mediterranean, equipped with cruise missiles. The missiles can also be fired from submarines, but the US Navy does not reveal their locations

Airbases at Incirlik and Izmir in Turkey, and in Jordan, could be used to carry out strikes

Two aircraft carriers - USS Nimitz and USS Harry S Truman are in the wider region

French aircraft carrierCharles de Gaulle is currently in Toulon in the western Mediterranean

French Rafale and Mirage aircraft can also operate from Al-Dhahra airbase in the UAE