Syria crisis: Cameron and Putin disagree on evidence in phone call

A youth, affected by what activists say is toxic gas, is treated at a hospital in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus August 21, 2013
Image caption There has been graphic footage of the suspected chemical weapons attack

David Cameron has spoken by phone to Russia's president in the wake of last week's suspected chemical attack in Syria.

The prime minister told Vladimir Putin there was "little doubt" a chemical weapons attack had been carried out by the Syrian regime, Downing Street said.

But Mr Putin told him they had no evidence that an attack had taken place or who was responsible, it said.

A decision on whether to recall Parliament will be made on Tuesday.

The suspected chemical attack took place on Wednesday near the Syrian capital Damascus, and reportedly killed more than 300 people.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said the attack was a "moral obscenity".

UN inspectors have visited the site of the suspected attack, although their trip was delayed after their convoy was shot at by snipers. They are expected to resume their work on Tuesday.

Mr Cameron is cutting short a family holiday to Cornwall and is expected to work from Downing Street on Tuesday and hold a National Security Council meeting on Wednesday.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has cancelled a visit to Afghanistan.

'Something to hide'

Mr Cameron has spoken to a number of other foreign leaders this weekend, including US President Barack Obama and his French and German counterparts.

Mr Cameron and Mr Obama agreed the need for a "firm response" from the international community to the attack.

In his phone call with the Russian president, Downing Street said, Mr Cameron and Mr Putin "both reiterated the position agreed by all leaders at the G8 in June: no-one should use chemical weapons and any use would merit a serious response from the international community".

A spokesman said Mr Cameron told Mr Putin "there was no evidence to suggest that the opposition had the capability to carry out such a significant attack, and the regime had launched a heavy offensive in the area in the days before and after the incident".

The Syrian regime "had also prevented UN access in the immediate aftermath, suggesting they had something to hide".

Mr Putin, though, said they did not have evidence of whether a chemical weapons attack had taken place or who was responsible, the spokesman said.

Russia has warned strongly against Western military action against Syria.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said any intervention in Syria without a UN mandate would be a "grave violation of international law".

The UN Security Council is made up of 15 members including five permanent members - China, Russia, France, the US and the UK - who have the power to veto any resolution.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague earlier told the BBC it would be possible for the UK and its allies to respond without the UN's unanimous backing.

Mr Hague said a response could be "based on great humanitarian need and distress".

"We, the United States, many other countries including France, are clear that we can't allow the idea in the 21st Century that chemical weapons can be used with impunity," he said.

Parliament recall

Mr Cameron is to chair a meeting of the National Security Council - attended by military and intelligence chiefs and senior ministers - on Wednesday to discuss potential responses.

Downing Street said the government would decide on Tuesday "whether the timetable for our response means it will be necessary to recall MPs sooner than Monday when the House is currently due to return".

Meanwhile, former UK special representative for the Middle East, Lord Williams, said that, although Mr Kerry and Mr Hague "may say there's compelling evidence" the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons, "this is yet to be proven to the general public".

"And, of course, against a background of the Iraq war, there will be misgivings," he told BBC News.

He said UN inspectors in Syria must "be given some time to make sure that their view is or is not that chemical weapons were used and that the authors of that chemical attack was indeed the government".

And Tory MP John Baron, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and a former army captain, said a "slightly sceptical" Parliament must be consulted about any possible UK military intervention.

"Parliament was told that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction," he said.

"We were told that we'd be in and out of Helmand without firing a shot. We're now being told that Assad's used chemical weapons."

He added: "All I'm saying is let's see the evidence - let's base our decisions on hard evidence."

Labour's shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has also said he would "expect the prime minister to make his case to Parliament" before a decision was made about UK involvement in military action.

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Media captionWilliam Hague: UN Security Council has not shouldered its responsibilities

It is understood the most likely military response to the suspected chemical weapons attack would be a one-off or limited guided missile strikes on Syrian military targets fired from US Navy warships, says BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner.

In Syria, the rebels say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime carried out a chemical attack, but the regime blames rebel forces - saying footage of the attack was "fabricated".

UN chemical weapons inspectors visited five sites around Damascus on Monday, although their trip was delayed when their convoy came under sniper attack.

They went to hospitals, interviewed witnesses, survivors and doctors, and collected some samples, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said.

  • 01:15: 21 August (10:15 GMT 20 Aug): Facebook pages of Syrian opposition report heavy fighting in rebel-held eastern districts of the Ghouta, the agricultural belt around Damascus
  • 02:45: Opposition posts Facebook report of "chemical shelling" in Ein Tarma area of the Ghouta
  • 02:47: Second opposition report says chemical weapons used in Zamalka area of the Ghouta
  • Unverified video footage shows people being treated on pavements in the dark and in a makeshift hospital
  • Reports say chemical weapons were used in Ghouta towns of Irbin, Jobar, Zamalka and Ein Tarma as well as in Muadhamiya to the west, but this is not confirmed
  • Syrian government acknowledges military offensive in the Ghouta but denies chemical weapons use