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Syria and Russia accuse US of plotting 'provocation' to justify attack

The Syrian government and its ally Russia have accused Washington of concocting a "provocation" in Syria, which would then be blamed on President Bashar Assad's government as alleged use of chemical weapons to justify an attack.

In a statement carried by the official news agency, Syria's Foreign Ministry said it rejects US allegations that Syria was preparing for a chemical weapons attack, describing such accusations as "misleading" and "completely baseless".

It said the objective of such allegations was to "justify a new aggression on Syria under ill-founded pretexts, similar to what happened in April when the US struck a Syrian air base", which it said had been used to stage a chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed nearly 90.

Earlier this week, the White House warned that Mr Assad is preparing for another chemical attack and said the Syrian ruler will "pay a heavy price" if he unleashes it.

Also on Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Moscow has received information that Syrian rebels have already fabricated video materials to accuse Damascus of a chemical attack.

She said that according to the information Russia has, the Syrian towns of Saraqib and Arihah could serve as venues for the "provocation".

Both towns are located in the province of Idlib in north-western Syria and are controlled by the rebels.

She claimed that such action could be aimed at derailing the next round of Syria peace talks brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran, which is set for next week in Kazakhstan's capital Astana.

The meeting is meant to determine specifics related to safety zones in Syria.

Ms Zakharova's strongly-worded statement reflects soaring tensions between Moscow and Washington even as US President Donald Trump and Russia's Vladimir Putin are expected to hold their first meeting at the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Germany.

In April, the US struck the Shayrat air base in central Syria, which it said had been used to stage a chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

The Pentagon said the preparations detected by the US occurred at the same Shayrat air base which the US named as the platform for launching the April attack.

The Syrian government has denied it ever used banned chemicals, and it rejected Washington's latest allegations.

Russia also has strongly denied that Mr Assad's forces were to blame for the attack in April, arguing that the victims had died of exposure to toxic agents released when Syrian war planes hit a rebels' chemical weapons depot.

Moscow claimed that some of the images from the scene were fabricated and criticised the international chemical weapons watchdog of failing to send its inspectors to the site of the attack and the Syrian air base allegedly used to launch it.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed on Thursday that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a phone call this week told him that Washington has information about Mr Assad allegedly preparing a chemical attack.

Mr Lavrov questioned the veracity of the US information and suggested that extremists could take advantage of the US warning to stage a provocation in order to blame Mr Assad.

Asked how Russia would react to a possible US strike on Syria, Mr Lavrov said that the response will be "proportionate".

AP

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