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May to chair emergency cabinet meeting on Syria ‘chemical attack’

MPs demand Commons vote on any UK involvement in military action against the Assad regime.

Theresa May is to chair an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the latest crisis in Syria amid signs she is preparing to join US-led air strikes against the regime of President Bashar Assad.

The Prime Minister summoned ministers to No 10 after saying “all the indications” were that the regime was responsible for an alleged chemical attack on its own people last weekend.

The Ministry of Defence refused to comment on a report in The Daily Telegraph that Royal Navy submarines had been ordered into range to launch Tomahawk cruise missile  strikes as early as Thursday night.

“We don’t comment on submarine movements,” a spokesman said.

Separately, Downing Street would not be drawn on claims Mrs May was preparing to authorise UK forces to strike against Assad with first seeking vote in Parliament.

In a development on Thursday morning, Russian media reported Syrian government forces had seized control of the city at the centre of the escalating tensions, Douma, where the attack is said to have taken place.

All the indications are that the Syrian regime was responsible ... The continued use of chemical weapons cannot go unchallenged Theresa May

Kremlin-backed news agency Tass reported a Moscow official saying that Russian military police will be deployed to the city to maintain law and order.

The Organisation for for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had said it intends to send investigators to Douma to look for any evidence of a chemical attack.

“Today saw a landmark event in Syria’s history. A state flag hoisted on the Douma building heralded control over this settlement and, hence, over entire eastern Ghouta,” Yuri Yevtushenko, chief of Russia’s centre for reconciliation of the warring parties in Syria, told Tass.

Mrs May has faced calls to wait for unequivocal proof of a chemical attack by the Assad regime before committing British forces to retaliatory action.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn joined other opposition parties – as well as some Conservative backbenchers – in insisting MPs must be have a say on any British involvement in military action.

However Mrs May faces growing impatience from Washington, where President Donald Trump tweeted the missiles “will be coming”.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later insisted no final decisions had been taken and that “all options are on the table”.

She made clear however that Mr Trump held Assad and his principal backer, Russia, responsible for what happened in the rebel-held town of Douma.

“The president holds Syria and Russia responsible for this chemical weapons attack,” she said.

The threat of sparking a wider conflict between the West and Russia led Mr Corbyn to demand Parliament should give its consent before UK forces joined US-led strike.

“Parliament should always be given a say on any military action,” he told the BBC.

“What we don’t want is bombardment which leads to escalation and leads to a hot war between Russia and America over the skies of Syria.”

His call for Parliament to be given a say on military action was echoed by both the SNP and the Liberal Democrats.

Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said that while the use of chemical weapons was a “clear red line” the Government needed to present its evidence of regime responsibility to Parliament.

“There must be a debate and vote in the House of Commons ahead of any military action,” he said.

Speaking during a visit to Birmingham on Wednesday, Mrs May sidestepped questions as to whether she was prepared to give MPs a vote.

She said that she would continue to work with Britain’s “closest allies” – the US and France – to ensure that those responsible for the “barbaric” attack were held to account.

“We have been working to get an understanding of what happened on the ground. We are rapidly reaching that understanding,” she said.

“All the indications are that the Syrian regime was responsible and we will be working with our closest allies on how we can ensure that those who are responsible are held to account.

“The continued use of chemical weapons cannot go unchallenged.”

Her comments came as both Washington and Moscow ratcheted up the growing war of words between the two sides.

Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkinhad, warned they would shoot down US rockets and “even the sources that launched the missiles” – suggesting they could hit American aircraft or warships.

That prompted Mr Trump to tweet: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria.

“Get ready, Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart’. You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

The attack in Douma happened late on Saturday amid a resumed offensive by Syrian government forces after the collapse of a truce with the Army of Islam rebel group.

Syrian opposition activists and rescuers said poison gas was used on the rebel-held town near the capital, an allegation strongly denied by the Assad government.

It came almost exactly a year after a chemical attack in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun killed dozens of people.

That assault prompted the US to launch several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base.

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