US official: Russia knew in advance that Syria would launch chemical weapons attack

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The US has concluded that Russia knew in advance about the chemical weapons attack believed to have been carried out by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that killed dozens of civilians early last week, a senior US official told the Associated Press on Monday.

Both Moscow and Damascus have denied that Assad dropped the chemical weapons, claiming instead that the gas was released accidentally when a Syrian air strike hit a “terrorist warehouse” containing “toxic substances.”

Experts quickly cast doubt on Russia’s explanation for Syria’s worst chemical weapons attack since 2013, when Assad — an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — is believed to have used sarin gas to kill as many as 1,400 people in the outskirts of Syria’s capital, Damascus. Assad still denies responsibility for that attack.

The US determined shortly after the attack occurred that Syrian warplanes had dropped the chemical weapons, which caused injuries and deaths that the World Health Organisation said were “consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals, a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents.”

The Pentagon had been looking into whether Russia was complicit in the attack: A Russian drone was reportedly hovering above a hospital treating gas victims, and then turned off, just before it was bombed. US officials believe the hospital was targeted in an attempt to hide evidence of the chemical attack.

Those officials have now concluded that the drone that had been hovering above the hospital was operated by Russia, but they still have not determined whether the warplane was operated by a Russian or Syrian pilot.

“The official said the presence of the drone couldn’t have been a coincidence, and that Russia must have known the chemical weapons attack was coming and that victims were seeking treatment,” the AP reported.

The US retaliated against the gas attack on Thursday night, launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the airfield where Assad’s warplanes are believed to have taken off loaded with chemical weapons.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Russia, which helped broker the deal to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile in 2013, “has been complicit” or “simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of the agreement.”

It is unclear how the US will respond now that officials have concluded that Russia knew of the gas attack in advance. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Monday that the Assad regime would be “ill-advised” to use chemical weapons in the future, foreshadowing a potentially greater US response than last week’s cruise missile strike.

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