US says it has proof Syria carried out Douma gas attack

White House and state department say with very high confidence that regime was responsible

The US has said it has proof that the Syrian regime carried out a chemical weapon attack on the outskirts of Damascus on Saturday, rejecting a Russian assert that it had been staged by British intelligence.

Both the White House and state department announced on Friday that the US had” a high level of confidence” about the regime’s culpability for the use of poison gas in Douma.

The declaration marked a transformation from a statement by the defence secretary, James Mattis, on Thursday, that the US was still looking at the evidence. But the US envoy to the UN, Nikki Haley, told the security council that the Trump administration had still not decided on a military response.

The UK denounced as” a blatant lie” Russian claims that the country’s intelligence services were responsible for staging” the fake chemical weapons assault” in Douma, as a pretext for launching a wider military assault on the Syrian regime forces.

Moscow has hitherto said there was no traces of any chemical assault in Douma. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons( OPCW) are due to visit the scene on Saturday. However, France, UK and the US have said their own proof already points to Damascus.

Western diplomats would not rule in military action while the OPCW is on the ground, but said their capitals would try to avoid a situation in which inspectors could be vulnerable to harm or being taken hostage.

Asked about the Russian accusation against the UK, the White House spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders said:” Our intelligence tells us otherwise … We have a very high confidence that Syria was responsible “.

The state department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, told:” We can say that the Syrian government was behind this attack … We know there are only certain countries, like Syria, that have delivery mechanisms and have those types of weapons .”

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said he had obtained documentary evidence showing that” special services of a country, which is now seeking to be in the first ranks of the Russophobic campaign, were involved in this staged event “. The UK Foreign Office said the claims were preposterous.

Alexander Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador to London, told reporters the UK-funded Syrian civil defence forces, the White Helmets, were responsible for staging fake chemical attacks by the Syrian army in an attempt to mislead the world. Igor Konashenkov, a Russian defence ministry spokesman, went further saying:” We have … evidence that proves Britain was directly involved in organising this provocation .”

He said Russia had proof that London put pressure on the White Helmets to stage the attack. The White Helmets is a humanitarian organisation made up of 3,400 volunteers who rescue civilians from the rubble after airstrikes.

Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the UN, described the claims as” grotesque, bizarre and a blatant lie “. She added:” I want to country categorically … that Britain has no participation and would never have any participation in the use of a chemical weapon .”

A Foreign Office spokesperson told:” Russia has wielded its UN security council veto six days since February 2017 to shield the Assad regime from scrutiny for its use of chemical weapons. These accusations from Moscow are just the latest in a number of ludicrous allegations from Russia, who have also said that no assault ever happened.

The accusations plunged the two countries’ intelligence agencies into yet more conflict, and came as the first each member of a UN weapons inspectors fact-finding mission arrived in Damascus to see whether evidence remained to prove a chemical weapons assault had passed, as photograph, blood samples and accounts from witness have shown. The inspectors are expected to be given access to Douma on Saturday.

Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, insisted labour inspectors from the OPCW must be given full and unfettered access to witnesses and houses.

Russia, in conjunction with the forces of the Syrian chairperson, Bashar-al Assad, is in charge of the Douma area.

At another highly charged session of the UN security council on Friday, Russia’s Vassily Nebenzia repeated the claim that the two attacks was staged. Hayley, his American counterpart, said she was ” in awe” that Nebenzia could make such asserts “with a straight face”.

Pressed outside the UN chamber on when the US would decide whether to launch a military ten-strike, Haley said:” You don’t hurry-up decisions like this .” She added that if there was haste,” you make a mistake “.

On Thursday Trump called Theresa May, the UK prime minister, and the two agreed” it was vital that the use of chemical weapons did not run unchallenged “. But the US delay in taking action appears to be caused by divisions between the White House and Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary, on the viable targets that could be struck in an effort to wipe out Syria’s alleged chemical weapons stores and factories.

The hesitation in Washington devoted Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, a chance to consult with Vladimir Putin to see whether they can construct a compromise that will avoid a military attack but still satisfy western demands that Russia stops protecting Assad’s breaches of the chemical weapons conventions.

Macron, who on Thursday said he had proof of use of chemical weapons by Syrian regime- also called for dialogue with Russia.

But the glimmer of hope for diplomacy came alongside continued planning for a military assault. Britain’s military chiefs have been working on a range of scenarios over the last few days. The focuss of an attack would be on Syria’s alleged chemical weapons research and storage facilities.

Other targets under consideration by the Ministry of Defence, working in coordination with the US and France, include Syrian command and control centres as well as airbases, airliners and helicopters.

An attack on Assad’s presidential palace in the hills above Damascus has been ruled out as a step too far. May will be challenged by MPs to spell out her military schemes on Monday, if no weekend assault has been launched.

The planners are anxious to avoid destroying Russian equipment or killing Russian personnels based in Syria, potentially eliciting a reaction from Moscow. They insist weapons and intelligence are better than in the 1991 Iraq war in which the Amiriyah bomb shelter was made killing more than 400 civilians, or the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

A spokesperson for the French defense ministry, chiming with MoD partners, told Macron had specified there would be no targeting of Russians in Syria and the focus would be on Syria’s alleged chemical weapons capabilities.

A prime target is the Scientific Studies and Research Centre, west of Damascus, which the US has claimed have engaged in the preparation of chemical weapons.

Targets could include airbases where the chemical weapons are alleged to have been stored, as well as aircraft which have allegedly been used attacks.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, an expert who led the UK and Nato chemical weapons reply squads, said it was highly unlikely that an attack on Syrian chemical facilities risked spreading the poison.

” The best style to destroy chemical weapons is to blow them up ,” he said.

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Syria gas attack: Theresa May condemns ‘barbaric’ targeting of civilians

Assad regime and Russia must be held to account if they were behind Douma attack, tells PM

Theresa May has said the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and his Russian backers must be held to account if found responsible for the chemical attack that killed dozens of people

The prime minister did not rule in joining international military action against the Syrian regime, but refused to elaborate on the range of options that might be available to the government.

During a visit to Denmark, she condemned the “barbaric” aimed at providing innocent civilians, including children, in the attack which is the subject of a meeting of the UN security council in New York on Monday afternoon.

Standing alongside her Danish equivalent, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, May told reporters:” If they are found to be responsible, the regime and its backers, including Russia, must be held to account .”

Later in Stockholm, where she was meeting with prime minister Stefan Lofven, May said:” We are running urgently with our allies to asses what has happened. But, we are also working with our allies on any action that is necessary .”

Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, had earlier told his French equivalent, Jean-Yves Le Drian, that” a full range of options should be on the table” for the international community in response to the attack. This is understood to include airstrikes against military targets.

May has come under growing pressure in Britain to take action after the suspected poison gas attack on the rebel-held town of Douma in Syria which killed at least 42 people.

The prime minister did, however, toughen her criticism of the Russian government, saying Moscow’s recurred employ of its veto at the UN had enabled international rules on chemical weapons to be broken and investigations hampered.” This must stop ,” she said.

When asked whether she had a direct message for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, she said the Kremlin should” appear very carefully at the position they have taken “.

May said the attack was part of a “troubling” wider pattern of aggressive acts and that Britain had consistently given a “very clear message” to Syria about “brutal” ten-strikes against its own people.

But when it came to concrete action she maintained her alternatives open.” This is a brutal regime that is attacking its own people and we are very clear that it must be held to account and its backers must be held to account too ,” she said.

” What we are urgently doing with our allies is assessing what has taken place. Patently, if this is a chemical weapons attack of the sort the initial reports suggest that it is, this is another example of the Assad regime’s brutality and the brazen way in which they have ignored the interests of their people .”

Britain has been locked in urgent talks with allies in Washington, Paris and at the UN before Monday’s meeting.

Johnson said in February that Britain should consider joining military action against the Assad regime if there is fresh “incontrovertible” evidence he has utilized chemical weapons against his own people.

However, following a sarin attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun last April that left dozens dead, May rejected as “hypothetical” his suggestion that the UK would have to join action in the case of farther atrocities.

Earlier, Downing Street said the UK was working with its allies to come up with a rapid and unified response to the apparent chemical attack on Saturday in Douma.

A No 10 spokesman said Britain would consider” a range of options” if there was verified evidence of chemical weapons being used, but rejects to speculate on what these might be.

No 10 also cautioned Russia, which backs the Assad regime, against was striving to obstruct the work of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons which has confirmed it has begun an investigation into the attack.

Government sources have expressed concern that if Britain were to had participated in any action taken to punish Assad it would have to be approved by parliament.

David Cameron suffered a serious jolt to his credibility when he lost a historic Commons vote in 2013 over launching airstrikes on the Assad regime to deter its use of chemical weapons, after the then Labour leader, Ed Miliband, refused to accept his backing to the plan.

There is no legal requirement for the government to seek parliamentary approval before ordering military action but it has become convention to consult MPs.

Donald Trump told the Assad regime and its allies on Sunday that there would be a ” big price to pay “~ ATAGEND after shocking footage demonstrated victims, many of them young children, suffering from the attack.

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Aftermath of suspected chemical assault in rebel-held Douma in Syria – video

The US president demanded access be opened to Douma, the last of three besieged districts in the Ghouta area to remain under opposition control, to confirm what had happened. He issued a statement along with the French chairman, Emmanuel Macron, vowing to” co-ordinate a strong, joint answer “.

It went a year to the day since Trump ordered a US strike in which 59 weapons reached a Syrian airbase thought to be the origin of the attack on Khan Sheikhun. Since then, he has vowed to order another ten-strike if chemical weapons were used again.

Israeli warplanes on Sunday bombed a Syrian regime airbase east of the town of Homs, Russian and Syrian military forces said.

Syria denied that a gas attack had taken place, while Moscow cautioned the west against taking” military action on fabricated pretexts” which could have dire consequences.

But at home, pressure was growing on May’s Conservative party for tough action against the regime. The defense pastor, Tobias Ellwood, said the UK could not” maintain turning a blind eye” to the” barbaric and illegal” horrors of the conflict.

Mark Field, the Foreign Office minister, told the BBC the UK could support the US and Nato friends” if there were to be further action” against Syria.” I don’t think we are going to be able to rely upon a United Nations security council resolution, which is almost unprecedented given the gravity of what is being proposed here, simply because the Russians will veto such a thing standing behind their client nation, Assad ,” he added.

The Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, said there was a legitimate example for using force, tweeting:” Standing by as kids are gassed isn’t pacifism, it’s tolerating evil .”

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, said he condemned the use of chemical weapons in any scenario, but did not place the blamed on Assad directly, instead calling for the UN to be able to access the area to investigate.

He added:” I call on all parties to cooperate urgently with the UN in conducting an inquiry into this so we can find out exactly who delivered the chemical weapon. The proof is significant and the use of international law is crucial to bring about a most peaceful world in the future.

” The misfortune and the terror of people’s lives in Syria can only aim by a political answer. That entails every country in the region, as well as Russia and the US, coming together to ensure there is a meaningful ceasefire, and there is a political process in bringing about a political solution to the conflict that has wasted so many lives in Syria .”

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Trump to decide on US response to Syria gas attack ‘within 48 hours’

President condemns heinous assault and vows to take action against those responsible

Donald Trump has condemned the ” heinous ” deadly chemical weapon attack on a Damascus suburbium and said he will decide within the next 24 to 48 hours whether to launch a military reprisal against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Speaking to reporters as he convened his cabinet, the US president told:” We cannot allow cruelties like that”, adding that “hes having”” not much doubt” about who was behind the poison gas assault in Douma that killed more than 48 people and affected hundreds more.

When asked if military action was a possibility, Trump said:” Nothing is off the table … If it’s Russia, if it’s Syria, if it’s Iran, if it’s all of them together, we’ll figure it out, and we’ll know the answers quite soon. So we’re looking at that very, very strongly .”

Trump, who has consulted his British and French friends, announced:” We will be building some major decisions in the next 24 to 48 hours .”

Later, with his new, hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, beside him, he suggested a foreshortened schedule, telling:” We’ll be constructing that decision very quickly, probably by the end of the day .”

Asked if the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, bore any responsibility for the most recent attack, Trump told:” He may, yeah, he may. And if he does it’s going to be very tough, difficult and challenging. Everybody’s gonna pay a price. He will, everybody will .”

His remarks echoed a tweet on Sunday in which he specifically criticised Putin for the first time, warning that he would pay a” big cost” for backing the Assad government.

Almost precisely a year ago Trump authorised a Tomahawk missile strike on the Syrian Shayrat airbase within three days of a chemical assault deemed to have been undertaken by the Assad regime airforce. Russia in effect controls the airspace over Syria and operates its military operation from the Khmeimim airbase in north-western Latakia province and the nearby Russian naval base at Tartus.

The US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, visited the largest US military base in the Middle East in Qatar on Monday, and will have been briefed on the options for a US attack.

The US president’s comments came before a UN security council meeting. At the meeting, the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley told the council:” The United States is determined to see the monster who fell chemical weapons on the Syrian people held to account . … History will record this as the moment when the Security Council either discharged its duty, or demonstrated its utter and complete failure to protect the people of Syria. Either route, the United States will respond .”

Washington is demanding that Russia aims its veto on a UN accountability mechanism that can determine persons responsible for chemical assaults. UN bodies can investigate whether a chemical attack has occurred but not point blame at any group or regime.

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Aftermath of suspected chemical attack in rebel-held Douma in Syria – video

Speaking in Stockholm, the British “ministers “, Theresa May, told:” We are running urgently with our allies to assess what has happened. But, we are also working with our allies on any action that is necessary .”

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke to Trump by phone and concurred a strong joint reply. In Paris, Macron held talks with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who is one of the strongest backers of the Syrian opposition.

The Russian foreign ministry insisted there was no evidence of a chemical assault, let alone Syrian government involvement, adding the Syrian rebel fighters, branded by Moscow as jihadi terrorists, may have mounted a false flag operation to try to seduce a reluctant Trump administration deeper into the seven-year Syrian civil war.

The rebels had been mounting a last-ditch, and now abandoned, resistance to the Syrian government taking over Douma. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told:” Our military experts have visited this place and they did not find any tracing of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians .”

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The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told:” It’s necessary to examine very carefully what happened in Douma. And it goes without saying that without this information, making any allowances is wrong and dangerous .”

Russia also blamed Israel for intensifying the Syrian crisis by carrying out an overnight air raid on a largely Iranian running T-4 airbase near Homs inside Syria. Iran tells at least three Iranians were among the 14 dead in the Israeli missile attack. Israel had previously struck the airbase, in March last year and February this year.

Israel is determined to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and block the flow of arms to Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces close to the Israeli perimeter in south-west Syria.

The Iranian foreign ministry named the three members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps killed in the attack, and denounced Israel’s actions as” a violation of the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria “.

Israel, according to US officials, forewarned Washington of its air raid, and Russia in a diplomatic turnaround outed Israel as being responsible for the attack, saying two Israel jets launched the overnight strike.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, conveyed deep concern about the chemical attack in Douma, saying it would launch an immediate investigation.

The OPCW told:” A fact-finding mission is in the process of gathering further information from all available sources to establish whether chemical weapons were used .”

The Russian military are also at the scene of the attacks, claiming there are no reports from physicians at local hospitals of a chemical attack, a suggestion that appears to be contradicted by graphic videos of children foaming at the mouth.

The OPCW only has powers to investigate whether a chemical attack has taken place but not to attribute responsibility. A UN-OPCW body, the joint investigative mechanism, did have powers to ascribe responsibility but was closed last year after Russia vetoed its renewal.

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Russia must uphold the chemical weapons convention, tells UK- video

The UK ambassador to the UN, Karen Pierce, said Russia as a permanent member of the security council had a special responsibility to uphold and protect the chemical weapons convention and international law.

The absence of a UN investigatory mechanism was a significant gap in the international architecture to prevent impunity for war crimes, she told. She added she was not holding her breath for Russia to drop its objections to an investigatory mechanism, pointing out Russia had vetoed the proposal twice before.

Britain’s Labour party also moved closer to blaming Assad for the attack. The darknes foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, told:” What has happened in Douma looks to be merely the most recent abhorrent attack in Syria use chemical weapons, a war crime for which[ the] Assad regime has been found responsible in the past and which we utterly condemn .”

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Israel rejects UN and EU calls for inquiry into Gaza bloodshed

Defence minister says soldiers did what had to be done after protests turned violent

Israel’s defence minister has rejected United Nations and European Union calls for an investigation into the killing of more than a dozen Palestinians by the military during demonstrations on the Gaza frontier.

Gaza’s coastal enclave has been shaken by the bloodiest episode in years after protests advertised as peaceful sit-ins turned violent, with Israeli troops firing rounds of live ammo at mob of stone-throwers.

Hospitals in Gaza have recorded hundreds of emergency admissions from the protest, and doctors have said most were for gunshot wounds.

The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, and the EU’s top envoy, Federica Mogherini, called for independent investigations into the bloodshed, which left 16 people dead.

But the Israeli defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, told Israel’s public radio on Sunday that there will not be an inquiry.” From the standpoint of the[ Israeli Defence Force] soldiers, they did what had to be done ,” he told.” I think that all of our troops deserve a commendation .”

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What is the history of the Palestinian reconciliation efforts?

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The two main Palestinian parties- the Fatah faction of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and the Islamist militant group Hamas- have operated separate governments in the West Bank and Gaza respectively since 2007.

The situation emerged after Hamas defeated Fatah in parliamentary elections in 2006. Fatah refused to recognise the result, leading to a near-civil war that watched Hamas push Fatah out of Gaza.

Numerous attempts at reconciliation have ensued but the latest effort seems “the worlds largest” yet. The issue of who controls the borders and operates government ministries is a key exam , not least in loosening the Israeli blockade on Gaza, imposed after Hamas took control.

Responsibility for land border crossings- in a coastal strip without a commercial ocean port or airport- is crucial, as Palestinians and goods can only cross by these checkpoints. Both Egypt and Israel will want to ensure that no limbs reach Hamas and other groups.

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Israel has accused Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, of using” violent riots to camouflage terror “. It also pointed to an attempted gun attack on Friday against soldiers along the border.

Israeli army spokespeople have said claims by the Gaza health ministry that more than 750 people were wounded by live fire are exaggerated.

At the Gaza Strip’s main Shifa hospital, the digital registry of A& E admissions on Friday, assured by the Guardian, showed that from 8.45 am until the end of the working day, 275 people from the protest arrived. It did not specify injuries, but doctors said most had gunshot wounds to the legs.

A clerk told a further eight patients were transferred from surrounding clinics to Shifa’s operating theatres. Surgeons said many patients had big exit wounds.

On Sunday a 23 -year-old man, Adam Abu Ghanima, said he had just driven to the hospital from a demo, which was smaller than Friday’s. His kneecap had been pierced and blood soaked the sheets of the bed where he lay.

He said he had planned to place a Palestinian flag near the frontier.” I was right next to the Israeli soldiers. Before they shot me, they fired alerting shootings in the air ,” he told. But he kept going, he added,” to bring Jerusalem back “.

Another man said he had been shot trying to lift a Palestinian flag that had fallen over on the Gazan side.

Doctors said the majority of members of those acknowledged since Friday had been discharged, but some awaiting surgery lay in beds surrounded by friends and families.

Ibrahim Fathi Hasna, 22, said he and another man who had wire cutters and a Molotov cocktail had managed to cut through a fence at a protest on Saturday to breach an Israeli-controlled area. They were both shot.

Hasna said he crawled back, eyes filled with teargas, until he was hoisted into an ambulance. The other man was reach in the back, he told, and he was unsure of his condition. Asked why he had wanted to cross the fence, he replied:” I just wanted to be there .”

The Great March of Return is a schemed six-week demonstration calling for refugees and their descendants to be allowed back to their family homes in Israel. Backed by Hamas and other activist and political Palestinian factions, larger meets are expected every Friday, the holy day for Muslims.

Israel did not specify exact orders to troops, but a spokesperson said anyone approaching the” hostile perimeter” was a potential threat.” People coming towards the fence, attempting to penetrate and break into the fence, damaging the infrastructure or using that area as a staging ground could potentially be shot ,” said Lt Col Peter Lerner, of the Israel Defense Forces.

On Sunday Turkey’s chairman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, called Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a “terrorist”. Netanyahu tweeted that the Israeli army” will not be lectured by those who have indiscriminately bombed civilian populations for years”, referring to Turkey.

Gaza has been blockaded for a decade by Israel and Egypt, which tightly control goods and people entering the 140 sq mile area.

The demoes in Gaza appeared to be split in two, with women and children staying hundreds of metres from the perimeter fence, protesting in a festival-like atmosphere. Groups of largely young men headed closer to hurl boulders and light bottles of petrol. There have been no the reporting of Israeli casualties.

Israel told 10 of the dead is accountable to Hamas. Hamas said five members of its armed wing who participated in the protest were killed.

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Rodrigo Duterte to pull Philippines out of international criminal court

President accuses ICC of crusade against him after it opened inquiry into his war on drugs

Rodrigo Duterte is to withdraw the Philippines from the international criminal court after it opened a crimes against humanity investigation into his brutal war on drugs.

In a lengthy statement, the Philippines chairman accused the ICC and the UN of a crusade against him, denouncing what he described as” baseless, unprecedented and outrageous assaults on my person “.

” I therefore declare and forthwith give notice, as president of the republic of the Philippines, that the Philippines is withdrawing its ratification of the Rome statute[ the treaty that established the ICC] effective immediately ,” said Duterte.

The ICC announced last month it was investigating allegations that Duterte had committed crimes against humanity in his war on drugs, which has killed an estimated 8,000 people since he took office in May 2016.

Duterte initially said he welcomed the chance to defend his name. But on Wednesday he said the ICC had shown a” brazen ignorance of the law” and claimed that the Rome statute was fraudulently implemented in the Philippines to begin with and therefore not” effective or enforceable “.

Philippine legislators satisfied the proclamation with scorn and rage. Congressman Antonio Tino said the move was ” utterly self-serving and driven by sheer panic at the prospect of a trial before the ICC for criminal offences against humanity related to his murderous war on narcotics “. Tino added:” Saving his own scalp has taken precedence over the long-term commitment made by the Philippines state to human rights .”

Kabataan party representative Sarah Elago said it showed that” Duterte intends to impose his fascist and tyrannical propensities even against international critics “.

” Only the guilty become too eager to run away from prosecution ,” Elago added.” If indeed he wants to prove his innocence, what better platform than a court ?”

Relations between the Philippines and the international community have become increasingly antagonistic in recent weeks. Last week, the department of justice included a UN special rapporteur on a listing of people declared to be communist terrorists. In response, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, told Duterte” needs to submit himself to some sort of psychiatric examination “.

In his statement on Monday, Duterte told Hussein’s comments were clear evidence of” international bias” and that the ICC was ” being utilised as a political tool against the Philippines “.

He also described the ICC’s inquiry- which involves looking into a 77 -page report submitted to it last year that allegedly documents Duterte’s crimes against humanity going back to 1988 when he was mayor of Davao- as” unduly and maliciously generated “.

When the Philippines ratified the Rome statute in 2011- nine years after it came into force- it was seen as a big step forward for human rights in Asia. The country’s withdrawal will be seen as a jolt for international accountability of the states of the region. The ICC, based in The Hague, is the world’s only permanent international tribunal that looks into war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Duterte has stimulated his contempt for the ICC well-known in the past, calling it “bullshit”, ” hypocritical” and “useless”, but in his statement on Wednesday, he went further, accusing the court of violating its own due process and depriving him of the interests of innocence until proven guilty.

Should the ICC’s preliminary investigations find evidence of crimes against humanity, the Philippines’ sudden withdrawal from the statute would not protect Duterte from being put on trial. A country’s withdrawal from the ICC takes effect a year after the UN has received the application and article 127 of the Rome statute specifies that” withdrawal shall not affect any cooperation with the court in connection with criminal investigations “.

James Gomez, Amnesty International’s south-east Asia director, described Duterte’s move as misguided and deeply regrettable.” Powerful people in the Philippines are more interested in covering up their own potential accountability for killings than they are in ensuring justice for the many victims of the country’s brutal war on medications ‘,” Gomez said.

There are 139 countries signed up to the Rome statute, but with some powerful exceptions. The US signed the treaty in 2000 but never ratified it, citing fears over sovereignty, similarly with Russia. Israel signed it for a short period but also never ratified it into law.

Should the UN accept Duterte’s withdrawal, it would build the Philippines only the second country to withdraw from the Rome statute, following Burundi in 2017. South Africa attempted to leave in 2016, but its withdrawal was revoked by the UN.

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2017 was the deadliest year of Syrian war for children, says Unicef

Report advises generation faces psychological wrecking, with most vulnerable the hardest hit

A generation of Syrian children face psychological ruin and ever increasing peril, with child deaths rising by 50% last year and the number of young soldiers tripling since 2015.

A report by Unicef saw 2017 was the worst year of the war for young Syrians, with 910 killed in a conflict that has spared them no mercy and has taken a vastly disproportionate toll on the country’s most vulnerable people.

The figures undermine claims that the war, which will soon enter its eighth year, is losing steam. Those most at risk face escalating menaces of being permanently maimed by opposing, or emotionally scarred by a litany of abuses including forced labor, matrimonies, food scarcity and minimal access to health or education.

” There are scars in children and there are scars on children that will never be erased ,” said Geert Cappelaere, Unicef’s director for the Middle East and north Africa.” The protection of children in all circumstances that was once universally embraced- at no moment have any of the parties accepted .”

Syrian children in numbers

More than 13 million people inside Syria need humanitarian assistance, more than half of whom are children, the UN says. Of the 6.1 million internally displaced, roughly half( 2.8 million) are children. Figures for last year depict an average of 6,550 people were displaced each day in Syria.

During the first months of 2018 there has been a sharp escalation in violence in Idlib, eastern Ghouta on the suburbs of Damascus and in Afrin on the Turkish perimeter. The Syrian regime and Russia have been besieging Idlib and east Ghouta, while Turkey and a proxy Arab force launched an offensive against the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in January. There also remains a lethal threat from mines and unexploded bombs left over from opposing in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.

In eastern Ghouta a besieged population of nearly 420,000 people, half of whom are children, are suffering a month of airstrikes from Russian and Syrian jets, which are attempting to oust opponent fighters and the communities that support them from Damascus’s doorstep. Calculated death tolls in Ghouta range from 1,000 to 1,300 people. Children are thought to account for at least several hundred casualties.

Reaching children in need has been relentlessly difficult, the UN has said, with requests to deliver aid to opponent communities routinely denied and convoys allowed to enter often stripped of essential medicines. Humanitarian access was denied 105 times in 2017 alone- a year marked by sieges of east Aleppo and east Ghouta, which had both been strongholds of the anti-Assad opposition throughout the war.

Healthcare facilities, including hospitals and ambulance basis, have been repeatedly targeted in eastern Ghouta, recurring a pattern set elsewhere in Syria. In opposition-held east Aleppo, the healthcare network was destroyed before the area was overrun by pro-regime forces-out in late 2016. Last year alone, there were 175 assaults on health and education centres, the Unicef report says.

Medecins Sans Frontieres tells 15 of the 20 hospitals and clinics it supports in eastern Ghouta have been hit by airstrikes or shelling. Local authorities inside the enclave say the healthcare system is being systematically targeted and the capacity to care for high numbers of wounded has shrunk tremendously as a result.

” Their[ Assad regime’s] strategy is brutally clear ,” said Ghassan Chamsi, a resident in the Douma neighbourhood of eastern Ghouta.” They want to terrorise everyone into running for the borders. Either submit, or die. But don’t expect to be treated by our own .”

On almost every economic indicator, children in Syria experienced worse conditions last year than in 2016. The scarcity of food has soared across the country, with the young again suffering most for the absence of adequate nutrition. Up to 12% of young Syrians are considered to be acutely malnourished, the report says.

The psychological impact on young generations who have spent at the least half their lives in conflict, deprived of adequate food, education and healthcare, is among the most difficult risk categories to gauge.

” Their conditions require specialised therapy and services ,’ said Cappelaere.” As children, their needs differ from those of adults: as their bodies and abilities change, so must their care. These children face a very real risk of being forgotten and stigmatised as the unrelenting conflict continues .”

With opposing raging in north and central Syria, the majority of the population displaced and regional powers now more deep invested in the war than before, there appears to be little hope of the humanitarian situation easing anytime soon.

Syrian refugee numbers

Russia and Iran have both strengthened their support for Bashar al-Assad, who was losing on the battlefield until Vladimir Putin sent the Russian us air force to prop up the Syrian leader in September 2015. Iranian-led ground troops have been central to clawing back lost ground, while opposition groups, splintered and divided , no longer pose a sustained menace to the regime.

However, Idlib and east Idlib, despite sustained assaults, remain formidable obstacles to a leadership that has pledged to return all of Syria to central control. As yet, there is no plan for what to do with eastern Ghouta’s population if they are forced to flee. In Idlib, more than 2.5 million people, many of them displaced from elsewhere in the country, are crammed into a small province faced with ever increasing humanitarian needs.

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‘A boys’ club’: UN agency accused over sexual harassment claims

Leading campaigner, current and former faculty call for inquiry into bully and sexual assault at UNAids

The head of a resulting women’s rights movement has called for an independent investigation into what she calls permeating bully and sexism within a UN agency, alleging that she was harassed and sexually assaulted while working for the organisation.

Malayah Harper , now general secretary of the World YWCA, one of the world’s oldest women’s rights organisations, said the agency UNAids must urgently review how sexual harassment accusations are handled.

Her call for an inquiry is supported by testimonies from six current or former UNAids employees. The girls, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described a culture where senior male staff offer career progression in exchange for sexual relationships, and harass women with seeming impunity.” It’s a boy’ club environment ,” said one employee.” They just see it as nearly part of their due .”

Harper, who worked for UNAids for more than 10 years, alleges she was sexually harassed for years and sexually assaulted in 2013 by Luiz Loures, the agency’s deputy executive director. She did not report the incidents at the time because she believed no action would be taken. A previous objection she had stimulated, against a different member of staff which related to bully and intimidation, had not been handled adequately, she said. The investigation report was not shared with her , no counselling was offered and the alleged perpetrator was moved on through a promotion, she added.

” I’m a feminist, I was the lead in the organisation on gender- and I had been bullied quite seriously, and then sexually harassed for years. The irony of it did not escape me ,” said Harper. A bigger irony, she added, was that this was happening at the UN:” The UN is the custodian and standard setter for the human rights of women and girls .” She also said that UNAids’ policies for tackling sexual harassment were” based on reporting, on weakly enforced punitive measures- not on prevention or providing support to employees “.

Harper said she had decided to speak publicly because she believed that UNAids is failing many female members of staff and the people the UN serves.” A manager has a responsibility to ensure staff are in a safe place of work. If you do nothing, you are accountable. The surrounding becomes corrosive and pernicious ,” she said.

UNAids said it has zero tolerance for sexual harassment and abuse, and that it had clear procedures to address complaints.

Two females told the Observer they had warned the agency’s executive director, Michel Sidibe, about Loures’s alleged behaviour. One former employee, who left in 2015, said:” I had an exit interview with Michel when I left and the first words out of my mouth were,’ your deputy director is a sex predator and everybody knows it. I’m telling you because you really have to do something about it .'”

UNAids said Sidibe always took complaints severely and always acted in accordance with required procedures.

On Friday, UNAids said that Loures, who is also an assistant secretary-general of the UN, would not seek to renew his contract when it expires at the end of March. Loures has recently been investigated over separate claims that he assaulted a current staff member in a lift while on run travel. An inquiry, which was criticized by campaigners, received the allegations to be unsubstantiated. The bureau said Loures’s decision to stand down was not related to sex misconduct claims.

The announcement of Loures’s departure follows news that Justin Forsyth has stepped down as deputy executive director of Unicef, the UN’s children’s agency, after accusations of inappropriate behaviour toward female faculty while working for Save the Children. He said his resignation was not related to past mistakes constructed while working for the charity. On Saturday, a number of charities, including Plan International and the International Committee of the Red Cross, disclosed the number of recent allegations of sexual misconduct or sexual abuse by staff members.

Harper said the deviation of high-profile officials did not exonerate the UN of responsibility, and that it had allowed a culture of sexual harassment to fester for years. She says she was repeatedly invited to drinkings by Loures, who once told her she was ” a very naughty daughter” because she had declined an offer in South Africa to satisfied him one night in his hotel room. In addition, following a run conference, Loures assaulted her in a lift, she said.” We left the conference and shared a lift together and he attempted to kiss me. In the process of me are moving, he bruised my lip. On exiting the lift he tried to get me into his hotel room and rent a button off my shirt .”

A second woman, who wished to remain anonymous, also alleged she had been assaulted by Loures, after a work meeting. She did not file a complaint.” He grabbed me, pushed me against himself, stuck his tongue in my mouth and touched me all over. I was so shell shocked ,” she claimed.” I can’t say he was extremely aggressive but he was constantly all over me putting his hands on me. I said I can’t, I don’t want this, let me go. He tried several times and then he let me go .”

A farther two women alleged that Loures had pursued or sexually harassed them.” When I would talk to him he had this route of backing me up against the wall and putting his arm so you’re literally trapped, pulling me in for a hug, truly insisting that we needed to go out for dinner ,” said one woman.

Some females said they believed run had been taken away from them, or that their career progression was slow, because they did not comply or engage in sexual relationships.

They did not report what had happened because they did not trust the complaints system, or because they had also experienced sexual harassment at the hands of the senior personnels to whom they turned for support.

UNAids said personnel were regularly informed of the channels available to raise a complaint, including a 24 -hour hotline, and were offered protection when they did so, such as reassignment to another squad. In recent years it has taken extra measures to prevent harassment at the workplace, it said, adding that it fosters current or former staff who have a complaint to report it.

UNAids has been criticised for its handling of a recent investigation into Loures. An internal investigation report said Sidibe had attempted to settle the assault allegation informally, despite the issues being under official investigation by the World Health Organisation’s investigations squad, Internal Oversight Service.

UNAids afterward told the Observer that Sidibe had no role in the decision-making process of the case and that the investigation could not have been stopped through an informal solving.” Any formal complaint received by UNAids is always acted upon in accordance with due process ,” it added.

This month, the Labour MP Gareth Thomas wrote a letter to Penny Mordaunt advising that the UK, as chair of the UNAids governing body, should immediately establish an external investigation into abuses of power, harassment, assault and bullying.

” This is not just one individual, it’s more than that ,” said one of the women who says she was harassed by Loures.” It’s about how you establish a system that creates perks for the chosen ones, which is a group of senior men .”

Loures did not respond to a request for comment.

UNAids added in a statement that, other than the investigation recently concluded that find the allegations to be unsubstantiated, it had received one other complaint of sexual harassment in 2009. Those allegations were also be considered to be unsubstantiated and both parties accepted the decision, it said.

” Informal channels of reporting and resolve require that the person making such an informal complaint expressly authorises that the matter be formally addressed ,” the statement said.

” Individuals who are not satisfied with the outcome of a formal resolution process may appeal to the administrative tribunal of the International Labour Organization. They also have recourse to local national jurisdiction .”

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Syria: fresh fighting in eastern Ghouta despite UN-ordered ceasefire

Assad forces-out have launched new air and ground offensive on battered enclave, witnesses say

Fresh fighting has broken out on several fronts in eastern Ghouta, the besieged opposition-held enclave on the outskirts of Damascus, despite a 30 -day ceasefire across all of Syria ordered by the United Nation.

After days of intense debate, the UN security council had voted unanimously on Saturday for a temporary truce to let the delivery of humanitarian aid and medical assistance.

But first reports from eastern Ghouta on Sunday said forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s Russian-backed president, had launched a new air and ground offensive in a bid to “storm” rebel positions.

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Why is the regime targeting eastern Ghouta?

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Eastern Ghouta is the last rebel-held enclave bordering the Syrian capital, Damascus. Since 2013, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have imposed a suffocating and deadly siege on the area. Yet several rebel factions have retained control.

This month, Syria’s army launched one of the most intense bombardments of the war, saying their assault was necessary to end rebel mortar ten-strikes on the capital. Residents accuse Russia of also bombing Ghouta, a mixture of dense suburbs and fields that once served as the breadbasket for Damascus.

Photograph: Mohammed Badra/ EPA

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Witnesses told al-Jazeera regime forces were attacking opposition groups on multiple fronts, while Syrian warplanes kept up their bombardment of the battered enclave for an eighth consecutive day.

Residents and human rights observers also described renewed attacks by planes and artillery, although the bombing was less intense than on previous days, Reuters reported. Clashes were resulting along several frontlines, and rebel fighters were said to be struggling to hold their positions. The Syrian military attained no comment.

About 520 civilians have died and more than 2,500 have been wounded in Ghouta since a relentless barrage of regime rocket fire, shelling and airstrikes began last Sunday. The dead include more than 120 children, in agreement with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The new fighting appeared to deal a blow to the authority of the UN and justify scepticism expressed by Russian officials about the viability of a ceasefire enforced from outside. If confirmed, a ground offensive proposed to the regime may be attempting to finally eradicate all resistance in Ghouta before the ceasefire takes effect.

The UN resolution called for the truce to begin “without delay” but did not set a specific timeframe, following Russian objections. Nor did it say how a ceasefire would be implemented, how the injured would be evacuated, or how returning assist employees would be protected.

Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, said the fight against terrorism would continue regardless , noting the ceasefire resolution excluded named organisations such as Islamic State and an al-Qaida affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham( HTS ), formerly the al-Nusra Front.

” Our government will reserve the right to answer as it deems appropriate in case those terrorist limbs groups are targeting civilians in any part of Syria with even one single missile ,” Ja’afari said.

The two main rebel factions in Ghouta- Faylaq al-Rahman and Jaish al-Islam- said after the vote that they would applied by the truce and facilitate aid access. But they also vowed is in response to any attacks.

Iran, whose Revolutionary Guards and militiamen are fighting alongside Assad’s forces, said both it and Syria would respect the UN resolution. But General Mohammad Baqeri, Iran’s armed forces chief of staff, insisted the ceasefire did not apply in areas of Damascus’s suburbs” held by the terrorists”, Iran’s Tasnim new agency reported.

The 30 -day ceasefire was also binding on US troops and other members of the anti-Isis coalition present in Syria, and on Israeli forces-out based in the occupied Golan Heights, the Syrian government said.

Previous ceasefires in the seven-year-old Syrian civil war have had limited success. A truce agreed by the regime and backed by Russia during the siege of Aleppo in 2016 collapsed on its first day.

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UN ambassador Nikki Haley says rumors of affair with Trump are ‘disgusting’

Haley denied speculation that spread online after Fire and Fury was published, saying It is absolutely not true

Brexit bill may have broken international environment law, says UN

Exclusive: conformity committee deems complaint alleging government violated Aarhus convention by not consulting populace over withdrawal bill

The British government may have breached a major” environmental democracy” law by failing to consult the public when drawing up Brexit legislation.

A UN-backed committee has confirmed it is considering a complaint from Friends of the Earth that the government’s EU withdrawal bill breached the Aarhus convention, which requires public consultation on any new environmental statute.

Most of the UK’s environmental laws derive from or interact with EU law, and Friends of the Earth( FoE) has raised concerns that the bill dedicates pastors” unique and wide-ranging powers” to amend or delete EU-derived environmental statute without public consultation, if ministers consider it appropriate.

According to Defra,” over 1,100 core pieces of immediately applicable EU legislation and national implementing legislation” fall within the department’s remit.

The ” polluter pays ” principle and the precautionary principle could both be affected, as could the public’s they are able to challenge changes to environmental laws.

William Rundle, lawyer for Friends of the Earth, said:” The government said Brexit was about taking back control, yet it has ignored the views of the UK people in taking it forwards. There has been no consultation on what the withdrawal bill could mean for the environment and environmental legal protections, or what is the best route forwards.

” The Aarhus convention requires effective consultation when new laws are being prepared that can significantly affect the environment, such as the EU withdrawal bill. This would have allowed environmental issues to be debated and understood, but also constructed democratic accountability and public confidence.

” The current approach by government in conducting Brexit fails to do this; they didn’t even try. Nobody believed Brexit would be easy, but the government cannot ignore its legal obligations, or the views of the people .”

According to the Aarhus convention’s three pillars, datum relating to environmental legislation must be provided by public authorities” in a timely and transparent manner “, and the public must be allowed to participate in the development of new laws at an early stage of their preparation. The third pillar is public access to justice, should a party violate or fail to adhere to environmental statute or the convention’s principles.

The government may have breached the convention in two ways, FoE says: by failing to set out a consistent legal framework to allow public participation in the preparation of new environmental legislation( article 3 ), and by not dedicating the public an opportunity to comment on the bill before it was presented to parliament to be made into law( article 8). FoE says the governmental forces failed to consult with the public, and by calling a snap election, any possible involvement with the bill’s white paper was prevented.

In a letter to Friends of the Earth, the Aarhus convention conformity committee says:” the committee has, on a preliminary basis, ascertained the communicant’s allegation concerning the preparation of the draft’ great repeal bill’ and the alleged absence of a clear, transparent and consistent framework to implement article 8 … to be admissible “.

Michael Mason, associate professor at the London School of Economics, says the government remains legally bound by the Aarhus convention after withdrawal from the EU, and by abolishing laws relating to Aarhus provisions the UK would be in breach of the treaty.

He says:” The UK would not be able to cherry-pick provisions in the convention: the UK is either fully in or would have to pull out from the treaty. To stay in, the UK government will have to retain all EU-derived law implementing Aarhus obligations.

” A withdrawal from the Aarhus convention would be disastrous for UK environmental policy .”

A House of Lords report calls the EU withdrawal bill a” bill of the first order in terms of law-making powers being granted to ministers “. It says” this bill is expected to generate another 800 to 1,000 statutory instruments in the near future .”

The bill does not require that current environmental standards are preserved after Brexit , nor does it contain a general requirement that the public should be consulted on potentially significant changes to environmental legislation. It does not require pastors to replace the existing European committee objections procedure on any infringement of EU-derived environmental law, which is currently available to UK citizens free of charge. The UK government could still include a requirement for public consultation, however.

In February 2017, campaigners won a case against the Ministry of Justice over proposed changes to cost protection orders that could have induced legal challenges to government over environmental issues too financially risky to seek. A UN committee at the time criticised the government for failing to meet its reporting obligation on access to justice under the Aarhus convention.

A government spokesperson said:” The purpose of the withdrawal bill is to provide a functioning statute book on the day we leave the EU- it is an essential bill in the national interest. While we can’t comment on proceedings, we believe we have complied with all of the relevant obligations in developing this crucial legislation and remain committed to maintaining the highest environmental standards. We will be submitting our full reply in due course .”

The government now has until 5 June to offer its written response to the complaint. The committee will then decide whether the UK government is in breach of its obligations.

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