EU blames Assad for attack, urges wait for UN report

EU blames Assad for attack, urges wait for UN report
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) meets with European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton before a meeting of EU ministers of foreign affairs at the National Gallery of Art in Vilnius September 7, 2013.

VILNIUS/PARIS - The European Union blamed the Syrian government on Saturday for an August 21 chemical weapons attack in Syria but urged waiting for a report from UN weapons inspectors before any US-led military response.

The carefully worded message from foreign ministers of 28 EU governments stopped short of endorsing possible US and French military action against Syria ahead of the report, which France's president said could come by the end of the week.

While their statement allowed France to claim victory in its push to get the EU to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government responsible for the attack in which more than 1,400 may have been killed, it also made clear the bloc wants the United Nations to play some role in deciding how to respond.

Many EU governments have expressed reservations about using military force to punish Assad, now fighting a 2-1/2-year battle against rebels in which more than 100,000 people have died.

Germany, where one opinion poll last Thursday showed 70 per cent of people are against the United States bombing Syria, and other nations have opposed taking action before UN inspectors can present their findings.

Public debate has intensified in the United States and in Europe during the week since US President Barack Obama said he believed Washington should launch targeted air strikes on Syria to deter Assad, and others, from using chemical weapons but he would ask Congress for the authority to do so.

Obama made that decision after the British parliament voted against Britain taking part in a strike and US opinion polls showed significant opposition to one, suggesting that he would be somewhat isolated if he ordered military action on his own.

US officials hailed the EU statement as showing support for a US-led strike was growing but the EU stance also highlighted the doubts many nations have and the time it may take to convince them, if they can be convinced.

"A clear and strong response is crucial to make clear that such crimes are unacceptable and that there can be no impunity," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said, reading a statement reflecting the 28 nations' position.

"The EU underscores at the same time the need to move forward with addressing the Syrian crisis through the UN process," it added, saying the bloc welcomed French President Francois Hollande's surprise decision this week to wait for the report.

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