First day of G20 summit in St Petersburg dominated by crisis in the Middle East

David Cameron

David Cameron’s presentation of new data about sarin nerve gas use in Syria has been aggressively dismissed by Russia. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/AP

Britain, France and the US on Thursday tried to pile pressure on an increasingly emboldened Vladimir Putin by producing new evidence that lethal sarin nerve gas was used in the notorious chemical attack in Syria in August.

The predominantly British claims were based on tests of clothing and soil samples that David Cameron said had been taken from Syria and tested positive for sarin by scientists at Porton Down, Wiltshire.

The British prime minister said that “we were confident and remain confident that Assad was responsible” for the attack on Ghouta, east Damascus, and added: “We have just been looking at some samples taken from Damascus in the Porton Down laboratory in Britain which further shows the use of chemical weapons in that Damascus suburb.”

Cameron’s fresh evidence was aggressively dismissed by Russia in an acrimonious end to the first day of the G20 summit in St Petersburg, at which events were dominated by the crisis in the Middle East.

A senior spokesman for Putin was reported to have told Russian journalists in a briefing that Britain was “a small island no one listens to”, apart from some oligarchs who had bought Chelsea football club. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, insisted that any evidence about the use of chemical weapons in Syria should be presented by the UN security council.

Cameron was forced to dismiss the belittling criticism – initially believed to have been made by the Russian president’s press attache, Dimitri Peskov – saying Britain was the leading the argument for a strong response to the use of chemical weapons.

A No 10 source said: “As host of guests from the world’s leading countries, I’m sure the Russians will want to clarify these reported remarks, particularly at a G20 where it’s a very British agenda on trade and tax. It highlights how a small island with great people can achieve a big footprint in the world.”

Later, Peskov angrily denied he had made the remarks, broadcast hours before Putin was due to meet Cameron for a late-night discussion. “I simply can’t explain the source of that claim … It is definitely not something I have said,” he said.

Cameron’s frustration at the way in which he has been forced to stand aside from any US-led military action against the Syrian government was revealed when he questioned how Labour could live with itself after taking “the easy political way out” in last week’s Commons vote, a decision that he said had been taken in the knowledge that children had been gassed to death in eastern Damascus.

He said he took “full and personal responsibility for the decision to recall parliament, for the decision to take a strong and principled stand against the gassing of children in Syria, and I take full responsibility for putting forward as generous a motion I could, to bring as many people with me as I could. Everyone who voted has to live with the way that they voted.”

The positive tests for sarin were carried out in the past seven days by British scientists at the Porton Down facility, and were deployed by Cameron in a fresh attempt to persuade the Russian president to do more to force the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, to the negotiating table.

The samples brought to Britain from the Syrian borders are different from the hair and blood samples tested in the US. Details of those test results were released by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, four days ago.

British sources did not give further details of the precise content of the UK tests but said they were confident the samples had not been tampered with during their passage to the Syrian border, and then to Britain. The results of the separate UN weapons inspectors’ on-site tests in Syria have yet to be revealed, but are likely to be known around the time the US Congress votes on whether to backmilitary action next week.

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Russia gave UN 100-page report in July blaming Syrian rebels for Aleppo sarin attack


This image provided by Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show dead bodies after an attack on Ghouta, Syria on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. | Uncredited/AP

Map locates Khan al Asal

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Russia says a deadly March sarin attack in an Aleppo suburb was carried out by Syrian rebels, not forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, and it has delivered a 100-page report laying out its evidence to the United Nations.

A statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website late Wednesday said the report included detailed scientific analysis of samples that Russian technicians collected at the site of the alleged attack, Khan al Asal in northern Syria. The attack killed 26 people.

A U.N. spokesman, Farhan Haq, confirmed that Russia delivered the report in July.

The report itself was not released. But the statement drew a pointed comparison between what it said was the scientific detail of the report and the far shorter intelligence summaries that the United States, Britain and France have released to justify their assertion that the Syrian government launched chemical weapons against Damascus suburbs on Aug. 21. The longest of those summaries, by the French, ran nine pages. Each relies primarily on circumstantial evidence to make its case, and they disagree with one another on some details, including the number of people who died in the attack.

The Russian statement warned the United States and its allies not to conduct a military strike against Syria until the United Nations had completed a similarly detailed scientific study into the Aug. 21 attack. It charged that what it called the current “hysteria” about a possible military strike in the West was similar to the false claims and poor intelligence that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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