UPDATE: Russia says military police now in Syrian town

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BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on the Syrian conflict (all times local):

Photo: Syrian Civil Defence

10:55 p.m.

Russia says its military police have begun operating in the Syrian city of Douma, following the pullout of anti-government fighters.

Maj.-Gen. Yuri Yevtushenko said Thursday that the MPs are deployed "to prevent provocations, guarantee security, for the support of law and order and organize aid for the local population."

Yevtushenko heads the Russian center for reconciliation of the warring parties in Syria.

Russia's Defense Ministry said earlier Thursday that Douma was under the control of Syrian forces and that some 1,500 fighters of the Army of Islam group had left the city.


10:20 p.m.

The British Cabinet has given Prime Minister Theresa May the green light to join the U.S. and France in planning military strikes in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.

After meeting for more than two hours on Thursday, the Cabinet backed May's plan to work with the two allies "to coordinate an international response." But it gave no indication of the timing or scale of any action.

The three nations have been working on a plan for military strikes in response to last week's attack in Douma.

May's office said the Cabinet "agreed on the need to take action to alleviate humanitarian distress and to deter the further use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime."

Opposition lawmakers have called for Parliament to be given a vote before any military action. May isn't legally required to do that, though it is conventional.


10:15 p.m.

Russia's U.N. ambassador is calling for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to hear from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on threat to international peace and security from possible military action against Syria by the U.S. and its allies.

Vassily Nebenzia told reporters after a closed council meeting Thursday on chemical weapons in Syria that he hopes an open meeting with the U.N. chief can be held "soon."

Nebenzia says: "The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war."

He said the second priority now is to get inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to the Damascus suburb of Douma where a suspected poisonous gas attack took place last weekend to see what happened — and "that nothing prevents them from doing it."

The OPCW said Thursday the investigators will start work on Saturday.


9:20 p.m.

Russia's U.N. ambassador says the top priority now is to avert war in Syria and doesn't rule out the possibility of a U.S.-Russian conflict.

Vassily Nebenzia said Russia is very concerned with "the dangerous escalation" of the situation and "aggressive policies" and preparations that some governments are making, a clear reference to the Trump administration and its allies.

He said: "We hope that there will be no point of no return — that the U.S. and their allies will refrain from military action against a sovereign state."

Nebenzia told reporters after a closed emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that "the danger of escalation is higher than simply Syria, because our military are there on the invitation of the Syrian government."


8 p.m.

Sweden has proposed a way forward to the paralyzed U.N. Security Council that would include immediately sending a high-level disarmament mission to Syria to address outstanding issues on the use of chemical weapons "once and for all."

A Swedish draft resolution, circulated to council members Thursday and obtained by AP, would also express the council's determination to establish "a new impartial, independent and professional" investigative body to determine responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

It would ask Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to submit proposals to the council within 10 days.

The draft would also give council support to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' fact-finding mission that Sweden's U.N. Ambassador Olof Skoog said "is on its way" to Syria to determine whether chemical weapons were used in the Damascus suburb of Douma last weekend.

Skoog said he expects the proposal to be addressed at Thursday's closed-door emergency council meeting on Syria.


7:15 p.m.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says that a special fact-finding mission is on its way to Syria and will start investigating the suspected chemical attack there as of Saturday.

The OPCW team will be seeking to find out if and what kind of chemicals were used in the attack of last weekend, the organization based in the Netherlands said in a statement on Thursday.

Western powers are convinced a chemical attack was instigated by the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad while Syria and Russia have dispelled such reports.


7 p.m.

Britain's U.N. ambassador says she will be stressing at an emergency Security Council meeting that chemical weapons are being used on innocent civilians in Syria, and Russia "has not lived up to its responsibilities to prevent that happening."

Karen Pierce told reporters before Thursday's closed council session called by Bolivia, a Russian ally, that the U.K. believes a fact-finding mission by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is important to determine whether chemical weapons were used last weekend in the Damascus suburb of Douma, and if so what kind.

But Pierce said she will also stress that "an independent investigation is needed to establish who is responsible."

Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution last November to renew the joint U.N.-OPCW body that was determining responsibility, and rival U.S. and Russian resolutions to replace that body were defeated on Tuesday.


6:30 p.m.

Syria's U.N. ambassador says it will facilitate a visit by international chemical weapons inspectors at "any point they want" in the town where a suspected gas attack occurred last weekend.

Speaking in New York on Thursday, Bashar Ja'afari said an inspection team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is on its way to Damascus and that visas are being provided.

Ja'afari said any delay or "disruption of their visit" would be as a result of "political pressure" from Western countries, which Syria says have politicized the issue.

Ja'afari denied his government has used chemical weapons and said "terrorists" have access to such weapons.

The attack last weekend in the town of Douma killed more than 40 people, according to Syrian opposition activists and rescuers. The U.S. and its allies blamed government forces, and have threatened military action.


6:15 p.m.

Bolivia's U.N. ambassador, who has called an emergency Security Council meeting on the threat of an attack on Syria, said he wants all members to agree that "no unilateral action should be taken."

Sacha Llorentty Soliz said any unilateral action against Syria should be considered "illegal" by all countries.

He told reporters ahead of Thursday's closed council meeting that his message to the U.S. government "is for them to comply with international law, to at least have at first a complete investigation of what happened" in the Damascus suburb of Douma, where a chemical attack is alleged to have taken place late Saturday.

After an investigation, he said, the Security Council should be asked "to adopt any measures" in response to the findings.

The U.S., Britain and France blame Syria for the suspected gas attack in Douma, while Syria and its close ally Russia deny any attack took place.


6 p.m.

Officials from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's office say the Turkish leader and Russia's Vladimir Putin have discussed the latest developments in Syria and agreed to keep in close contact.

The officials said the two leaders held a telephone conversation on Thursday hours after Erdogan said he would discuss ways of ending the "chemical massacre" in Syria with Putin.

The officials provided the information on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.

Erdogan earlier criticized the United States and Russia, accusing them of "relying on their military might" and of turning Syria into "a virtual wrestling ground."

He said Turkey's traditional ties to the West and growing ties to Russia and Iran were no obstacles to Ankara pointing out their mistakes.

—Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey


5 p.m.

NATO is calling on Russia and Iran to make sure that international observers and medical staff are being allowed in and around the area of the suspected chemical attack in Syria.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters that beyond Syrian President Bashar Assad, the alliance also wants Syria's "supporters Iran and Russia to make that possible — both to allow international observers but also to allow medical assistance access to the area."

Stoltenberg said that consultation were ongoing among the NATO allies on how to respond to the suspected chemical attack, and said "it is important that those responsible are held accountable."

Syrian opposition activists and medics say a suspected gas attack last week killed more than 40 people in Douma, a town outside the capital that was then controlled by Syrian rebels. The Syrian government has denied the allegations.

The Russian military says government forces are now in full control of Douma.


4:50 p.m.

Russia has warned the U.S. and its allies against assuming the role of a "global policeman" in response to what it describes as fake claims of chemical weapons use in Syria.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Thursday that Western leaders have no authority to be "investigators, prosecutors and executioners."

Syrian opposition activists and medics say a suspected gas attack last week killed more than 40 people in Douma, a town outside the capital that was then controlled by Syrian rebels. The Syrian government has denied the allegations.

Zakharova described the allegations as fake, but said the international chemical weapons watchdog should investigate them. She said Russia would ensure the monitors' security.

Zakharova called for de-escalating the situation, urging the West to carefully weigh the consequences before taking any action.


3:40 p.m.

An aide to Iran's supreme leader says he hopes Syrian forces will "expel the American occupiers" in the country's northeast after they retake other areas of the country from insurgents.

Ali Akbar Velayati, speaking in the Syrian capital on Thursday, said he visited eastern Ghouta a day earlier, calling the capture of the Damascus suburbs one of the most important victories of the seven-year civil war.

Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has sent thousands of troops and allied militiamen to support his forces.

Velayati said he hoped the northern Idlib province, which is dominated by al-Qaida militants would be the next to fall to government forces. He said Assad's forcers should then push east of the Euphrates River, where U.S. troops are embedded with Kurdish forces.

He said: "We are hopeful that major and extensive steps are taken later to liberate this area and expel the American occupiers."


3:05 p.m.

President Emmanuel Macron says France has proof that the Syrian government launched chlorine gas attacks.

Macron said Thursday that France would not tolerate "regimes that think everything is permitted." Speaking on TF1 television, Macron said "we have proof that chemical weapons were used, at least chlorine" in recent days by Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.

He did not say whether France is planning military action against Assad's government. Macron said he has been talking regularly this week with U.S. President Donald Trump about the most effective response.

With increasing concerns about a U.S.-Russia proxy war in Syria, Macron insisted that "France will not allow an escalation or something that could damage the stability" of the region. On Tuesday, Macron said any French action would target Syria's chemical weapons abilities.

Syrian opposition activists and medics say a suspected gas attack last week in Douma killed more than 40 people. The Syrian government has denied the allegations.


3 p.m.

Chancellor Angela Merkel says Germany won't participate in possible military action in Syria, but supports sending a message that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.

Merkel stressed the importance of a united position in the face of a suspected chemical weapons attack that the West is blaming on President Bashar Assad's forces. She said she spoke Thursday with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Merkel said in Berlin: "Germany will not take part in possible military action — I want to make clear again that there are no decisions — but we see, and support this, that everything is being done to send a signal that this use of chemical weapons is not acceptable."


2:45 p.m.

Russia has warned the U.S. and its allies against any steps that could destabilize the situation in Syria.

Asked to comment on possible U.S. strikes, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said Thursday that "it's necessary to avoid any steps that may fuel tensions in Syria." Dmitry Peskov added that it would have an "utterly destructive impact on the Syrian settlement."

Peskov wouldn't say if Moscow could use a Russian-U.S. military hotline to avoid escalation in the event of a U.S. strike, saying only that "the hotline exists and has remained active."

President Donald Trump warned Russia on Wednesday to "get ready" for a missile attack on its ally Syria, but tweeted Thursday that it may come "very soon or not so soon at all!"

The U.S. and its allies have threatened to respond militarily to an alleged chemical attack near Damascus last weekend.


2:30 p.m.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he will discuss ways of ending "the chemical massacre" in Syria during a telephone call with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan said he'll talk to Putin later on Thursday, a day after he talked to President Donald Trump about Syria.

Erdogan's remarks appear to criticize an exchange of threats by the United States and Russia, saying Turkey was "deeply disturbed by some countries that rely on their military might, turning Syria into a virtual wrestling ground."

Erdogan says Turkey's warming ties with Russia and Iran are "not an alternative" to its traditional ties to the West, adding that Ankara would "fight until the end" against Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and against U.S. support to a Syrian Kurdish militia that Ankara has labelled a terrorist group.


1:45 p.m.

Syrian President Bashar Assad says Western threats to strike his country after a suspected chemical attack are based on "lies" and seek to undermine his forces' recent advances near Damascus.

The U.S. and its allies threatened military action after an alleged gas attack by government forces over the weekend that Syrian opposition activists and medics say killed more than 40 people. The Syrian government has denied the allegations.

Assad said Thursday that Western countries were lashing out after they lost their "bet" on opposition forces in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital. Russia, a key ally of Assad, says government forces have taken full control of the town of Douma, the last rebel holdout in the region and the scene of Saturday's alleged attack.

Assad says the Western threats endanger international peace and security, and that military action would only contribute to the "further destabilization" of the region.

Assad spoke during a meeting with Ali Akbar Velayati, an aide to Iran's supreme leader.


12:20 p.m.

Kuwait's national carrier says it is suspending flights to Lebanon in line with security warnings from airline authorities concerning a possible strike on neighboring Syria.

Kuwait Airways released the statement overnight, saying flights to Beirut would be suspended from Thursday until further notice.

A day earlier, European airspace authorities warned aircraft to be careful over the next few days when flying close to Syria because of the possibility of air or missile strikes into the country.

The U.S. and its allies have threatened to take military action in response to an alleged chemical attack last weekend. Syrian activists and rescuers say the attack on Douma killed more than 40 people, allegations denied by the government.


12:15 p.m.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has summoned her Cabinet back from vacation to discuss military action against Syria over an alleged chemical weapons attack.

May has indicated she wants Britain to join in any U.S.-led strikes in response to the suspected attack near Damascus. She has said the use of chemical weapons "cannot go unchallenged."

The U.S., France and Britain have been consulting about launching a military strike, and President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday that missiles "will be coming."

Britain's Ministry of Defense refused to comment on reports that Royal Navy submarines armed with cruise missiles have been dispatched to within range of Syria.

British opposition lawmakers are calling for Parliament to be given a vote on military action. That is not a legal requirement, though it is a convention.

Syrian opposition activists and rescuers say a chemical attack launched by government forces in a rebel-held area near Damascus late Saturday killed more than 40 people, allegations denied by the Syrian government.


11:50 a.m.

France says it will decide in the coming days whether to launch a military strike over a suspected chemical attack in Syria.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Thursday that President Emmanuel Macron would decide whether to launch an attack over the "non-respect of the international convention against chemical weapons," which is a "red line" for France.

Speaking to reporters in Romania, Le Drian says: "We are very firm...as the president of the Republic said.... this situation can't be tolerated."

Asked about consulting the U.S, which has also threatened military action, Le Drian said "France is autonomous in taking its decisions."

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday warned of imminent military action in Syria over a suspected poison gas attack near Damascus that Syrian opposition activists and first responders say killed more than 40 people. Syria has denied carrying out such an attack.


10 a.m.

The Russian military says the Syrian government is now in full control of town on the outskirts of Damascus that was held by the rebels and that was the site of suspected chemical attack over the weekend.

The Defense Ministry said in a statement on Thursday that the situation in the town of Douma, just east of the Syrian capital, is "normalizing."

More than 13,500 Syrian rebel fighters and their families have left Douma this month under a so-called evacuation deal between the rebels and the Russian military, a top ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.

The Russian ministry says 1,500 left the town in the past 24 hours.

There was no immediate confirmation or indication from Assad's government that Syrian troops entered Douma on Thursday.