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Obama mulls 'narrow' Syria action

Barack Obama said he was considering "limited and narrow" action against Syria as the US government bluntly accused Bashar Assad's regime of launching a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 1,429 people - far more than previous estimates - including more than 400 children.

But the president said there would be no "boots on the ground", seeking to reassure Americans weary after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With France his only major public ally, Mr Obama said he had a strong preference for multilateral action, adding: "Frankly, part of the challenge we end up with here is a lot of people think something should be done but nobody wants to do it."

Mr Obama's efforts to put together an international coalition to support military action have been more down than up. French president Francois Hollande has endorsed punitive strikes but British prime minister David Cameron's attempt to win a vote of approval in Parliament for military action ended in ignominious defeat on Thursday night. And American attempts to secure backing at the United Nations have been blocked by Russia, long an ally of Syria.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has urged a delay in any military action until the inspectors can present their findings to UN member states and the Security Council.

Halfway around the world, US warships were in place in the Mediterranean Sea, carrying cruise missiles, long a first-line weapon of choice for presidents because they can find a target hundreds of miles distant without need of air cover or troops on the ground. In what appeared increasingly like the pre-attack endgame, United Nations staff dispatched to Syria carried out a fourth and final day of inspection as they sought to determine precisely what happened in last week's attack. The international contingent arranged to depart and head to laboratories in Europe with the samples they collected.

The Syrian government said the administration claims were "flagrant lies" akin to faulty Bush administration assertions before the Iraq invasion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. A Foreign Ministry statement read on state TV said that "under the pretext of protecting the Syrian people, they are making a case for an aggression that will kill hundreds of innocent Syrian civilians".

Mr Obama met his national security aides at the White House and then diplomats from Baltic countries, saying he had not yet made a final decision on a response to the attack. But the administration did nothing to discourage the predictions that he would act - and soon.

It was an impression heightened both by strongly-worded remarks from secretary of state John Kerry and the release of an unclassified intelligence assessment that cited "high confidence" that the Syrian government carried out the attack. In addition to the dead, the assessment reported that about 3,600 patients "displaying symptoms consistent with nerve agent exposure" were seen at Damascus-area hospitals after the attack.

To that, Mr Kerry added that "a senior regime official who knew about the attack confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime, reviewed the impact and actually was afraid they would be discovered". He added for emphasis: "We know this."

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