Aya Fadl, lies on a bed, with an oxygen mask to heal breathing difficulties following a suspected chemical attack on her town of Khan Sheikhoun, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria, Wednesday, April 5, 2017. Aya had ran from her house, with her 20-month old baby, and husband, thinking she could find safety from the toxic gas engulfing her town. Instead, on the street, she was confronted face to face by the horror of it. A pick-up truck piled with the bodies of the dead, including some of her own relatives. In all, she lost more than a dozen family members in the suspected chemical attack, including a twin babies. (Courtesy of Aya Fadl via AP)

Facts of Syrian attack needed: Freeland

Freeland stops short of directly blaming President Bashar Assad’s government

OTTAWA — The facts behind the Syrian chemical weapons attack must be clearly established so those responsible can be held accountable, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Wednesday.

Freeland stopped short of directly blaming President Bashar Assad’s government for the attack, but said it would be a “damning indictment” of him if that turned out to be the case.

“It is extremely important to hold accountable, at an individual level, the people responsible for this heinous attack,” Freeland said Wednesday from Brussels, where she was attending an international conference on the future of Syria.

The minister chose her words carefully, saying the investigation into Tuesday’s chemical attacks must essentially be bulletproof, so there is no doubt who is responsible.

Freeland said Canada and the U.S. are the two leading funders of the United Nations organization that investigates the use of the chemical weapons, which will play a role in establishing the facts of the attacks.

She said the international community must investigate, identify who did it, and hold them to account. She said the findings must be presented “in a highly credible international fora … so they cannot be disputed in any credible way.”

Freeland urged all permanent members of the Security Council to support a resolution by the U.S., Britain and France condemning the use of chemical weapons and threatening consequences.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said the attacks have “all the hallmarks” of Assad’s government and the U.S. may take action if the UN Security Council fails to act.

The UN envoy for Russia, which backs Assad, opposes the resolution, saying it is based on information from “discredited” groups.

Freeland praised Haley’s comments at the Security Council, saying the U.S. has an important role in resolving the ongoing conflict.

She said Haley has been “very active, very strong and very outspoken in the debate today at the Security Council and personally I would like to really commend the work that she has been doing today and the strong position she’s been taking.”

Donald Trump refused to say Wednesday what action the U.S. might take against Assad. But the president adjusted his view of Assad, blaming him for the attack, after saying just days ago that removing him from power was not a priority.

“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies — with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines,” Trump said.

One of Freeland’s Liberal colleagues, Omar Alghabra, the parliamentary secretary for consular affairs, called the allegation against Assad “credible,” given his government’s past use of chemical weapons.

“But I can’t say that for certain because we need an independent party to verify that.”

Alghabra said the ongoing Syrian conflict is frustrating, given his personal connections to the carnage.

“My background is Syrian. I still have family in Syria, so watching these horrific images and hearing about these stories are heartbreaking,” he said.

“We need to talk to Russia. We need to talk to other players in the region to ensure that they understand the consequences of continuing this.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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