The Russian Defense Ministry on Friday accused Britain of staging a fake chemical attack in a Syrian town outside Damascus, a bold charge vehemently denied by Britain as a "blatant lie." The exchange follows the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, and comes amid Moscow's stern warnings to the West against striking Syria.
A day before a team from the international chemical weapons watchdog was to arrive in Douma, just east of Damascus, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that images of victims of the purported attack were staged with "Britain's direct involvement, " without providing evidence.
Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, Karen Pierce, dismissed Konashenkov's claim as "a blatant lie." Pierce said she wanted "to state categorically ... that Britain has no involvement and would never have any involvement in the use of a chemical weapon."
White Helmets first-responders and Syrian activists have claimed the suspected chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian government on April 7 and killed more than 40 people in Douma, allegations that drew international outrage and prompted Washington and its allies to consider a military response. Moscow warned against any strikes and threatened to retaliate.
Konashenkov released statements he said came from medics at Douma's hospital, saying a group of people toting video cameras entered the hospital, shouting that its patients were struck with chemical weapons, dousing them with water and causing panic. The statement said none of the patients had any symptoms of chemical poisoning.
Konashenkov said that "powerful pressure from London was exerted on representatives of the so-called White Helmets to quickly stage the premeditated provocation." He added that the Russian military has proof of British involvement, but didn't immediately present it.
"This is grotesque," Pierce said of the Russian statement as she left an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council called by Russia on U.S. threatened military action in response to the alleged attack. "It's some of the worst piece of fake news we've yet seen from the Russia propaganda machine."
Konashenkov's claim followed an earlier statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that "intelligence agencies of a state that is now striving to spearhead a Russo-phobic campaign were involved in that fabrication." He didn't elaborate or name the state.
Last month, Britain blamed Russia for a nerve agent attack on an ex-spy and his daughter, accusations Russia has vehemently denied.
As fears of a Russia confrontation with Western powers mount, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his "deep concerns" over the situation in Syria in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to a statement by the French presidency, Macron called for dialogue between France and Russia to "continue and intensify" to bring peace and stability to Syria. The Kremlin readout said that Putin warned against rushing to blame the Syrian government before conducting a "thorough and objective probe."
The Russian leader warned against "ill-considered and dangerous actions ... that would have consequences beyond conjecture." Putin and Macron instructed their foreign and defense ministers to maintain close contact to "de-escalate the situation," the Kremlin said.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council Friday that "there is no military solution to the conflict." He said "the Cold War is back — with a vengeance but with a difference," because safeguards that managed the risk of escalation in the past, "no longer seem to be present."
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said President Donald Trump "has not yet made a decision about possible actions in Syria." She said of the alleged chemical attack that "Russia can complain all it wants about fake news, but no one is buying its lies and its cover-ups."
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia insisted that there was "no credible confirmation of toxic substance use in Douma," adding that "we have information to believe that what took place is a provocation with the participation of certain countries' intelligence services."
"We warned about this long ago," he said.
Russian officials had said before the suspected gas attack in Douma that rebels in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus were plotting chemical attacks to blame the Syrian government and set the stage for a U.S. strike. Moscow alleged soon after the suspected April 7 attack that the images of the victims in Douma were fakes.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also said that following Syrian rebels' withdrawal from eastern Ghouta, stockpiles of chemical agents were found there. The ministry additionally pointed to previous alleged use of chemicals by the rebels in fighting with Syrian government troops.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Lavrov reiterated a strong warning to the West against military action in Syria. "I hope no one would dare to launch such an adventure now," Lavrov said.
He noted that the Russian and U.S. militaries have a hotline to prevent incidents, adding that it's not clear if it would be sufficient amid mounting tensions.
Russia has been a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and has helped turn the tide of war in his favor since entering the conflict in September 2015. Syria's civil war, which began as a popular uprising against Assad, is now in its eighth year.
A fact-finding mission from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is expected to arrive in Douma on Saturday. Both the Russian military and the Syrian government said they would facilitate the mission and ensure the inspectors' security.
The Russian military said its chemical experts visited Douma shortly after the alleged attack and found no trace of chemical agents in ground samples. It also said Russian officers found no patients with chemical attack symptoms at a local hospital, and no indication of any burials of victims.
On Thursday, Russia's military said Douma has been brought under full control of the Syrian government under a Russia-mediated deal that secured the evacuation of the rebels and thousands of civilians after it was recaptured by Syrian forces. The government, however, said evacuations from Douma were ongoing and no Syrian government forces had entered the town.
Douma and the sprawling eastern Ghouta region near the capital, Damascus, had been under rebel control since 2012 and was a thorn in the side of Assad's government, threatening his seat of power with missiles and potential advances for years. The government's capture of Douma, the last town held by the rebels in eastern Ghouta, marked a major victory for Assad.