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PM defends Boris Johnson over Syria crisis and criticises Russia's stance

Theresa May has defended Boris Johnson over his handling of the Syrian crisis and criticised Russia for failing to condemn Bashar Assad's use of chemical weapons.

The Prime Minister said the Foreign Secretary had done an "excellent job" in forging an international consensus on the issue.

Syrian leader Assad has dismissed the alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun as a "fabrication" to justify US missile strikes against an airbase in his country.

But Mrs May said British scientists at the Porton Down research facility were "very clear" that the sarin nerve agent or "sarin-like substance" was used in the April 4 attack and it was "highly likely" that Assad's regime was responsible.

Mr Johnson has faced criticism after pulling out of a diplomatic mission to Moscow and failing to secure agreement on targeted sanctions at a meeting with G7 counterparts this week.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson visited Moscow for talks on Wednesday, days after Mr Johnson cancelled his own meeting with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

Mrs May defended the Foreign Secretary's efforts: "Boris Johnson did an excellent job in bringing together the G7, bringing together international opinion, and enabling Rex Tillerson from the United States to go to Moscow with a very clear message - a consensus from the international community."

During a visit to the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst she said: "Russia is on the wrong side of this argument but we are willing to work with Russia to bring an end to the conflict in Syria, to bring about a political solution in Syria, but that political solution has to be without Assad.

"That was the clear message the Foreign Secretary took to the G7 and the G7 gave to secretary Tillerson."

Assad insisted that his military was not responsible for the incident - if an attack actually took place.

He told the AFP news agency: "There was no order to make any attack.

"We don't have any chemical weapons, we gave up our arsenal a few years ago.

"Even if we have them, we wouldn't use them. We have never used our chemical arsenal in our history."

He claimed the US and the West were "hand in glove with the terrorists".

"They fabricated the whole story in order to have a pretext for the attack," he said.

Russia, one of Syria's few international allies, vetoed a draft UN Security Council resolution which would require the regime to provide detailed information about air operations and immediate access to air bases.

The Prime Minister's comments come amid widespread political unease over Russia's stance in the conflict, having repeatedly called for further investigation before blaming the Syrian government for the attack.

Britain joined the United States in condemning the Assad regime for last Tuesday's attack, and praised America's first direct intervention in the conflict through air strikes last Friday.

Donald Trump's decision to launch a tactical cruise missile strike against the airbase thought to be responsible for the chemical attack marked an abrupt change in American foreign policy, which has spent the majority of the Syrian war seeking a resolution through diplomatic means.

The British Government has so far ruled out UK military intervention in the conflict, but has sought to garner more widespread condemnation of the attack and strongly criticised Russian attempts to protect Assad forces.

An attempt by Mr Johnson to discuss the possibility of sanctions against Russia in light of its stance was blocked by other G7 nations this week.

The Foreign Secretary has previously said he is "dismayed" by Russia's veto against calls to condemn the Syrian government for the attack at the United Nations.

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