Chemical weapons team to begin assigning blame for Syrian attacks

FILE PHOTO: The headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is pictured in The Hague, Netherlands, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw/File Photo

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The global chemical weapons watchdog will in February begin to assign blame for attacks with banned munitions in Syria’s war, using new powers approved by member states but opposed by Damascus and its key allies Russia and Iran.

The agency was handed the new task in response to an upsurge in the use of chemical weapons in recent years, notably in the Syrian conflict, where scores of attacks with sarin and chlorine have been carried out by Syrian forces and rebel groups, according to a joint United Nations-OPCW investigation.

A core team of 10 experts charged with apportioning blame for poison gas attacks in Syria will be hired soon, Fernando Arias, the new head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told the Foreign Press Association of the Netherlands on Tuesday.

The Syria team will be able to look into all attacks previously investigated by the OPCW, dating back to 2014.

The OPCW was granted additional powers to identify individuals and institutions responsible for attacks by its 193 member states at a special session in June. The decision was supported by the United States and European Union but opposed by Russia, Iran, Syria, and their allies, highlighting deep political division at the agency.

“The mandate is to identify the perpetrators of crimes committed with chemical weapons, but the OPCW is not a court or the police”, and will refer cases to U.N. organizations with powers to punish those responsible, Arias said.

The expert team will “be in charge of identifying the perpetrators for Syria in the first stage”, Arias said, and might later be expanded to look at attacks globally.

The June decision followed attacks with other chemical weapons. In Salisbury, England, a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned in March with the military-grade nerve agent novichok, and the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was assassinated in Malaysia with VX in February 2017.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

What is Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency?

A general view shows the headquarters of the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, formerly known as the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), in Moscow, Russia October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – The West has accused Russia’s military intelligence agency (GRU) of running what it described as a global hacking campaign, targeting institutions from sports anti-doping bodies to a nuclear power company and the chemical weapons watchdog.

What is GRU and what does it do?

What is the GRU?

Russia’s military intelligence service is commonly known by the Russian acronym GRU, which stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate. Its name was formally changed in 2010 to the Main Directorate (or just GU) of the general staff, but its old acronym – GRU – is still more widely used.

Its published aims are the supply of military intelligence to the Russian president and government. Additional aims include ensuring Russia’s military, economic and technological security.

The GRU answers directly to the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, and the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, each of whom are thought to have access to Russia’s portable nuclear briefcase.

Russia’s two other main intelligence and security services were both created from the Soviet-era KGB: the Foreign Intelligence Service, or SVR, and the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

What are the GRU’s capabilities?

According to a Western assessment of GRU seen by Reuters, the GRU has a long-running program to run ‘illegal’ spies – those who work without diplomatic cover and who live under an assumed identity for years until orders from Moscow.

“It has a long-running program of ‘illegals’ reserved for the most sensitive or deniable tasks across the spectrum of GRU operations,” the assessment said.

The GRU is seen as a major Russian cyber player.

“It plays an increasingly important role in Russia’s development of Information Warfare (both defensive and offensive),” according to the Western assessment.

“It is an aggressive and well-funded organization which has the direct support of – and access to – [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, allowing freedom in its activities and leniency with regards to diplomatic and legislative scrutiny,” according to the assessment.

The GRU also has a considerable special forces unit. They are the elite of the Russian military.

“I don’t like rankings but the GRU is in the top levels of this business,” Onno Eichelsheim, director of the Netherlands Defence Intelligence and Security Service, told Reuters. “They are a very real threat.”

What are Western claims about GRU?

– The United States sanctioned GRU officers including its chief, Igor Korobov, for cyber attempts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Russia denied meddling in the election.

– Britain said two GRU officers attempted to murder former GRU double agent Sergei Skripal with Novichok. Russia denied any involvement.

– Britain said GRU was behind the BadRabbit attack of 2017, the hack of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, and attacks on the computer systems of both the Foreign Office and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in 2018. Russia said the accusations were fiction.

– The Netherlands said it caught four GRU cyberspies trying to hack into the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. It said the same group, known as unit 26165, had targeted the investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17.

– The United States charged seven GRU officers with plots to hack the World Anti-Doping Agency which had exposed a Russian doping program.

– GRU played a significant role in the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the conflict in Ukraine and the 2008 conflict with Georgia.

Note: The GRU does not have its own public web site and does not comment publicly on its actions. Its structure, staff numbers and financing are state secrets.

What is GRU’s history?

Russian spies trace their history back to at least the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th Century, who established a feared espionage service.

The GRU was founded as the Registration Directorate in 1918 after the Bolshevik Revolution. Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin insisted on its independence from other secret services, which saw it as a rival.

While the once mighty KGB was broken up during the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the GRU remained intact.

GRU officers played a significant role in some of the key junctures of the Cold War and post-Soviet history – from the Cuban Missile crisis to Afghan war and the annexation of Crimea.

The public was given a rare chance to see parts of the GRU’s Moscow headquarters when Putin visited it in 2006. He was shown taking part in shooting practice.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Britain says Russian military intelligence behind host of global cyber attacks

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and a masked security officer stand at a shooting gallery of the new GRU military intelligence headquarters building as he visits it in Moscow, Russia November 8, 2006.REUTERS/ITAR-TASS/PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/File Photo

By Guy Faulconbridge and Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Britain accused Russian military intelligence on Thursday of directing a host of cyber attacks aimed at undermining Western democracies by sowing confusion in everything from the 2016 U.S. presidential election to the global chemical weapons watchdog.

In a British assessment based on work by its National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), Russian military intelligence (GRU) was cast as a pernicious cyber aggressor which used a network of hackers to spread discord across the world.

GRU, Britain said, was almost certainly behind the BadRabbit and World Anti-Doping Agency attacks of 2017, the hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016 and the theft of emails from a UK-based TV station in 2015.

The Netherlands said it had caught four GRU officers red-handed as they tried to hack into the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from a hotel next door in April.

“The GRU’s actions are reckless and indiscriminate: they try to undermine and interfere in elections in other countries,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

“Our message is clear – together with our allies, we will expose and respond to the GRU’s attempts to undermine international stability,” Hunt said. Britain believes the Russian government is responsible for the attacks.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a news briefing that the British accusations were the product of someone with a “rich imagination”.

“It’s some kind of a diabolical perfume cocktail (of allegations),” TASS quoted Zakharova as telling reporters.

Though less well known than the Soviet Union’s once mighty KGB, Russia’s military intelligence service played a major role in some of the biggest events of the past century, from the Cuban missile crisis to the annexation of Crimea.

RUSSIAN CYBER POWER?

Though commonly known by the acronym GRU, which stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate, its name was formally changed in 2010 to the Main Directorate of the General Staff (or just GU). Its old acronym – GRU – is still more widely used.

It has agents across the globe and answers directly to the chief of the general staff and the Russian defense minister. The GRU does not comment publicly on its actions. Its structure, staff numbers and financing are Russian state secrets.

The GRU traces its history back to the times of Ivan the Terrible, though it was founded as the Registration Directorate in 1918 after the Bolshevik Revolution. Vladimir Lenin insisted on its independence from other secret services.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has said GRU officers used a nerve agent to try to kill former double agent Sergei Skripal, who was found unconscious in the English city of Salisbury in March. Russia has repeatedly denied the charges.

After the Skripal poisoning, the West agreed with Britain’s assessment that Russian military intelligence was to blame and launched the biggest expulsion of Russian spies working under diplomatic cover since the height of the Cold War.

According to a presentation by the head of the Netherlands’ military intelligence agency, four Russians arrived in the Netherlands on April 10 and were caught with spying equipment at a hotel located next to the OPCW headquarters.

At the time, the OPCW was working to verify the identity of the substance used in the Salisbury attack. It was also seeking to verify the identity of a substance used in an attack in Douma, Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB spy, said on Wednesday that Skripal, a GRU officer who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service, was a “scumbag” who had betrayed Russia.

Britain said the GRU was associated with a host of hackers including APT 28, Fancy Bear, Sofacy, Pawnstorm, Sednit, CyberCaliphate, Cyber Berkut, Voodoo Bear and BlackEnergy Actors.

“This pattern of behavior demonstrates their desire to operate without regard to international law or established norms and to do so with a feeling of impunity and without consequences,” Foreign Secretary Hunt said.

The United States sanctioned GRU officers including its chief, Igor Korobov, in 2016 and 2018 for attempted interference in the 2016 U.S. election and cyber attacks.

Australia and New Zealand backed the United Kingdom’s findings on the GRU.

“Cyberspace is not the Wild West. The International Community – including Russia – has agreed that international law and norms of responsible state behavior apply in cyberspace,” Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

“By embarking on a pattern of malicious cyber behavior, Russia has shown a total disregard for the agreements it helped to negotiate,” Morrison said.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Colin Packham; Editing by Stephen Addison)

Exclusive: EU to agree new sanctions regime for chemical attacks

FILE PHOTO: Bags containing protective clothing are seen after Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) left after visiting the scene of the nerve agent attack on former Russian agent Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, Britain March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union envoys are set to agree a new mechanism to punish chemical weapons’ attacks by targeting people blamed for using banned munitions regardless of their nationality, diplomats said.

The legal regime, based on a French proposal to combat what Paris and London say is the repeated use of chemical weapons by Russia and Syria, would allow the EU to impose sanctions more quickly on specific individuals anywhere in the world, freezing their assets in the bloc and banning them from entry.

Ambassadors from the EU’s 28 governments are expected to approve the regime at their weekly meeting on Wednesday, without debate.

The EU already has sanctions lists for Syria and Russia, but under the current system individuals must be added to special country lists. These are complex to negotiate and difficult to expand because some EU governments are reluctant to criticize close partners, particularly Moscow.

“This is significant because we will be able to add names without a big, sensitive debate,” said one senior EU diplomat involved in the negotiations. “We can try to uphold certain rights rather than just issuing statements.”

Banned two decades ago under an international treaty, the rising use of nerve agents has alarmed Western governments.

Recent cases include the assassination of the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2017 and the attempted murder of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in March.

EU diplomats say the new chemical weapons regime could be followed up by a similar mechanism for human rights violations, similar to the United States’ Global Magnitsky Act, which allows Washington to sanction individuals for abuses or corruption.

The regime, due to be given a final stamp of approval by EU foreign ministers on Oct. 15, will still need the support of all EU governments for names to be added, according to a preparatory paper seen by Reuters.

It was not immediately clear if Britain would propose to add two Russians accused of poisoning Skripal and his daughter.

But diplomats say it is a possibility as Britain has been unable to convince other EU countries to back new sanctions on Russia over the case.

Britain has charged two Russian men, identified as Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with attempting to murder Skripal and his daughter Yulia by spraying a chemical weapon on Skripal’s front door in the English city of Salisbury.

France pushed the EU sanctions regime in part because the United Nations Security Council has been deadlocked over how to set up an independent inquiry for chemical attacks in Syria.

Russia rejected a joint draft resolution by Britain, France and the United States earlier this year.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott, editing by Ed Osmond)

U.N. war crimes team documents further Syrian government use of banned chlorine

FILE PHOTO - Labels of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are seen iside a damaged house in Douma in Damascus, Syria April 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Ali Hashisho

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Syrian government forces fired chlorine, a banned chemical weapon, on a rebel-held Damascus suburb and on Idlib province this year, in attacks that constitute war crimes, United Nations human rights investigators said on Wednesday.

The three incidents bring to 39 the number of chemical attacks which the Commission of Inquiry on Syria has documented since 2013, including 33 attributed to the government, a U.N. official told Reuters. The perpetrators of the remaining six have not been sufficiently identified.

Weaponizing chlorine is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention, ratified by Syria, and under customary international humanitarian law, the investigators said in their latest report.

“To recapture eastern Ghouta in April, government forces launched numerous indiscriminate attacks in densely populated civilian areas, which included the use of chemical weapons,” it said, referring to incidents on Jan. 22 and Feb. 1 in a residential area of Douma, eastern Ghouta, outside the capital.

Women and children were injured in the attacks, suffering respiratory distress and requiring oxygen, it added.

“INDISCRIMINATE ATTACKS”

“The Commission concludes that, on these two occasions, government forces and or affiliated militias committed the war crimes of using prohibited weapons and launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian-populated areas in eastern Ghouta,” it said.

A surface-to-surface, improvised rocket-assisted munition had been used in the two Douma incidents, it said. “Specifically the munitions documented were built around industrially-produced Iranian artillery rockets known to have been supplied to forces commanded by the (Syrian) government,” the report added.

In the northwest province of Idlib – where the United Nations fears a major imminent assault by Syrian and Russian forces against the last rebel-held stronghold – chlorine was also used on February 4, the U.N. report said.

“Government helicopters dropped at least two barrels carrying chlorine payloads in the Taleel area of Saraqeb,” it said, adding that at least 11 men were injured.

“Documentary and material evidence analyzed by the Commission confirmed the presence of helicopters in the area and the use of two yellow gas cylinders”.

The report, based on 400 interviews, also examined aerial and ground attacks by Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’, conducted with allied Syrian rebels, which wrestled the northwest Afrin region from Syrian Kurdish forces this spring.

Afrin’s main hospital, a market and homes were hit, it said.

“In conducting airstrikes beginning on 20 January, the Turkish air force may have failed to take all feasible precautions prior to launching certain attacks, in violation of international humanitarian law,” the report said.

Rebels of the Free Syrian Army were “notorious for their arbitrary arrests and detention” in Afrin, it added.

More than a million civilians were displaced in six major battles across Syria during the first six months of the year, many marked by war crimes, the report said.

Thousands of displaced civilians still live in dire conditions in severely overcrowded centers, “where many are still being unlawfully interned by Government forces”, it said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Party cups as gas masks: Idlib civilians prepare for battle

A boy tries on an improvised gas mask in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

IDLIB, Syria (Reuters) – Hudhayfa al-Shahad strapped a colorful paper cup filled with cotton and charcoal to a child’s face and tightened a plastic bag around his head: an improvised gas mask if chemicals once again fall on Syria’s Idlib.

Civilians in Syria’s last major stronghold of active opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule are preparing food and digging shelters ahead of an expected army offensive.

They are also putting their faith in neighboring Turkey’s diplomacy to spare them from military action, which could become a humanitarian disaster.

“We are preparing what little we can: small primitive masks we can place on our children’s mouths in case we are hit with chemicals,” 20-year-old Shahad told Reuters from his village south of Idlib city, where he shares a house with his pregnant wife, three children and around 15 other people.

His brother, 35-year-old construction worker Ahmed Abdulkarim al-Shahad, shows off the cavernous space under a cool, vine-covered courtyard the family has been digging and sheltering in from bombardment since 2012.

“Military preparations as we have seen are in full swing … We as civilians have started preparing the caves,” he said, showing glass bottles of pickled vegetables shelved on the damp cave walls.

Around 3 million people live in the rebel stronghold in northwest Syria, which comprises most of Idlib province and adjacent small parts of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces.

About half of them fled fighting or were transferred there by the government under surrender deals from other parts of Syria as Assad has steadily taken back territory from rebels.

In April last year, a government warplane dropped sarin on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, killing more than 80 civilians, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry has said. It also said Syrian forces have used chemical weapons, including chlorine, more than two dozen times during the war.

Damascus and its ally Russia both deny these charges and say they do not engage in chemical warfare. Idlib residents are fearful and Washington has warned Assad against using chemical weapons in any offensive, promising a response if he does so.

Children hold plastic bags with a paper cup in them, in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Children hold plastic bags with a paper cup in them, in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

PROTECTION

Russia, Assad’s ally, resumed air strikes against insurgents in Idlib on Tuesday following weeks of bombardment and shelling by pro-Syrian government forces in an apparent prelude to a full-scale offensive against the last major rebel enclave.

But Turkey has said it hopes a summit with Iranian and Russian leaders in Tehran on Friday will avert an offensive.

And some people Reuters spoke to in Idlib suspected an offensive may be avoided.

“I do not believe there will be an attack on Idlib. It’s all a media war,” said 50-year-old former construction worker Jaafar Abu Ahmad from a rural area near Ma’arat al-Nuaman town. “The great world powers have pre-agreed on us and divided the land.”

Nevertheless, seven years of grinding war have taught Ahmad to be prepared. His family is currently expanding a damp dugout they have been digging and sheltering in from strikes for the past five years, stocking it with food.

“We have been digging in the earth for two months non-stop, me, my wife and children,” he said. “This cave is now our protection. We cleaned it recently after it had been neglected for a long time.”

Children walk in a makeshift shelter in an underground cave in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Children walk in a makeshift shelter in an underground cave in Idlib, Syria September 3, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

With shelling, air strikes and rhetoric about an impending offensive increasing, a number of local councils across Idlib have come together and asked Turkey for protection.

“For us in the liberated areas our only guarantor in negotiations is our Turkish brothers,” said Ahmad Shtaam al-Rashu, the 48-year-old head of Ma’shureen village’s local council.

Turkey has erected observation posts along the frontlines between rebels and government forces, and Rashu said Turkey had told them this was a sign of its commitment to protect the people of Idlib.

Idlib is often described as the “last refuge” for rebels and internally displaced civilians, and any offensive threatens new displacement and human misery.

“As for escaping toward the (Turkish) border, I don’t believe we will move from our houses. The bombardment will get us. There is no place left after Idlib,” said Ahmed al-Shahad.

“We will fight to the last man, we no longer have any option.”

(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Syria; Writing by Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Germany urges Russia to help prevent humanitarian crisis in Syria

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a news conference at the presidential villa in Abuja, Nigeria, August 31, 2018. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel expects the Kremlin to use its influence with the Syrian government to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the rebel-held northern region of Idlib, a government spokeswoman said on Friday.

Merkel has raised the issue in recent days with both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the German government is watching developments in the region with growing concern.

“We expect … Russia to prevent the Syrian government from escalating the situation and thereby prevent a humanitarian catastrophe,” Merkel’s spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told a regular government news conference.

She said it was imperative that humanitarian organizations be given unfettered access to the affected civilian population.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Thursday government forces will “go all the way” in a planned offensive in Idlib, the last major insurgent bastion in Syria, and that Damascus’s main targets were Islamist al-Nusra militants.

But he said Syria would not use chemical weapons in any offensive and that it did not have such arsenal. Syria would try to avoid civilian deaths, Moualem added.

Russia, meanwhile, has said it will begin a major naval exercise in the Mediterranean on Saturday, a move that appeared to be aimed at deterring Western forces from carrying out strikes on Syrian government forces.

The United Nations has called on Russia, Iran and Turkey to delay a battle that could affect millions of civilians, calling for humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians.

Putin will attend a three-way summit in Tehran on Sept. 7 with the leaders of Turkey and Iran, his spokesman said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.N. fears chemical weapons in Syria battle with ‘10,000 terrorists’

FILE PHOTO:A general view taken with a drone shows part of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations called on Russia, Iran, and Turkey on Thursday to forestall a battle in Syria’s Idlib province which would affect millions of civilians and could see both militants and the government potentially using chlorine as a chemical weapon.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said there was a high concentration of foreign fighters in Idlib, including an estimated 10,000 fighters designated by the U.N. as terrorists, who he said belonged to the al-Nusra Front and al Qaeda.

There could be no justification to use heavy weapons against them in densely populated areas, he said. Miscalculations could lead to unintended consequences, including the possible use of chemical weapons.

“Avoiding the potential use of chemical weapons is indeed crucial,” de Mistura told reporters in Geneva.

“We all are aware that both the government and al-Nusra have the capability to produce weaponized chlorine.”

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, speaking during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Thursday, said: “We are at the final stage of solving the crisis in Syria and liberating our whole territory from terrorism.”

“I assure you that we do not have chemical weapons and are not able to use them,” he added, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.

Idlib province is the last major rebel-held area in Syria, serving as what the U.N. has called a “dumping ground” for fighters and civilians evacuated from other battles. It is one of the areas that Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed to “de-escalate” last year at a series of talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.

But a source said on Wednesday that Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was preparing a phased offensive there.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that militants in Idlib had to be liquidated, describing them as “a festering abscess”.

“Why such a hurry, and not provide more time in order to allow more discussions, especially among the Astana guarantors?,” de Mistura said, referring to Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

The potential battlefield contains two crucial roads, transport arteries between major Syrian cities, which the Syrian government argues must be made safe. De Mistura asked if it was necessary to create a “worst-case scenario” just to secure Syrian government access to the roads.

It would be better to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians than rush into a battle which could prove to be a “perfect storm”, he said.

“The lives of 2.9 million people are at stake, and international mutually threatening messages and warnings and counter-warnings are taking place in the last few days.”

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)

U.S. is discussing chemical weapons use in Syria with Russia: Pentagon

U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis reviews the honor guard before meeting with the Brazilian Defense Minister Joaquim Silva e Luna (not pictured) in Brasilia, Brazil August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Adriano Machado

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said on Tuesday that the United States had recently discussed the use of chemical weapons in Syria with Russia, after media reports that Syria was moving chemical weapons into a rebel-held area the government seeks to recapture.

“You have seen our administration act twice on the use of chemical weapons,” Mattis told reporters. “I will assure you that (the) Department of State has been in active communication, recent active communication, with Russia to enlist them in preventing this … The communication is going on.”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Tim Ahmann)

U.S. strongly condemns Russia’s poisoning of former spy: White House

By Jeff Mason

BERKLEY HEIGHTS, New Jersey (Reuters) – The White House said on Friday the United States strongly condemned Russia’s use of chemical weapons against a former Russian agent in Britain, two days after the U.S. State Department announced sanctions over the move.

“The attack against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, United Kingdom, on March 4, 2018, was a reckless display of contempt for the universally held norm against chemical weapons,” said a spokesman for the White House National Security Council in an email.

The spokesman said sanctions that the State Department said it would impose by the end of August fulfilled its legal obligations “after determining a foreign government has used chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals or in violation of international law.”

Skripal, a former colonel in Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, and his 33-year-old daughter were found slumped unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury in March after a liquid form of the Novichok type of nerve agent was applied to his home’s front door.

President Donald Trump, who is spending the week at his golf property in New Jersey, did not comment on the recent sanctions when asked about them by a reporter on Thursday. Trump has sought to improve relations with Russia despite U.S. intelligence findings that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

European countries and the United States have expelled 100 Russian diplomats since that attack, in the toughest action by Trump against Russia since he came to office.

Trump and his advisers have often appeared at odds over how strongly to act against Moscow. In the run-up to a summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month, U.S. officials repeatedly called out Russia over its “malign” activities, but Trump did not use such language during a news conference with Putin.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Bernadette Baum)