MOSCOW — 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."