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Britain prepares for action against Syria as May wins cabinet approval

Senior UK government ministers approve May's proposal to work with international partners in action against Syria
May made the case for military action to stop further chemical attacks inside Syria (Reuters)

British ministers agreed on the "need to take action" against the Syrian government to deter the use of chemical weapons, Prime Minister Theresa May's office said after an emergency cabinet meeting on Thursday.

May called for the meeting to discuss military action after British submarines had reportedly moved within missile range of Syria, as US President Donald Trump warned missiles "will be coming" for the Syrian government.  

The emergency cabinet meeting took place amid widespread calls by opposition leaders for MPs to be given a vote before taking any military action in Syria. 

"The chemical weapons attack that took place on Saturday in Douma in Syria was a shocking and barbaric act," May said on Wednesday. "All the indications are that the Syrian regime was responsible."

Following the meeting, May's office said in a statement: "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.

"Cabinet agreed the prime minister should continue to work with allies in the United States and France to coordinate an international response," the statement added.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn demanded an urgent inquiry into the alleged chemical attacks in Douma and said that "parliament should always be given a say on military action."

Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!'

- US President Donald Trump 

May is not obliged to win parliament's approval, but a non-binding constitutional convention to do so has been established since a 2003 vote on joining the US-led invasion of Iraq. It has been observed in subsequent military deployments in Libya and Iraq.

A UK government source told the Times that RAF fighter jets operating from Cyprus are prepared for air strikes in Syria. 

UN warnings against escalation in Syria 

Moscow on Thursday called for restraint and said a "de-confliction" line, designed to prevent a confrontation between US and Russia, was in operation.

But the UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, earlier called on world leaders to prevent the Syrian war "spiral out of control".

As diplomatic tensions mounted between Western nations and Russia, an emergency closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council was also called on Thursday, at the request of Bolivia. 

Russia has warned of a response if Western nations strike Syrian government facilities, and called for a UN Security Council meeting for Friday.

The White House pushed back against suggestions that Trump had broadcast his plans for military strikes via Twitter, saying he had not laid out a timetable for action.

Theresa May described the suspected chemical attack in Syria as 'Barbaric' (Reuters)

Trump's comments raised the prospect of direct conflict over Syria for the first time between the two world powers backing opposing sides in the seven-year-old civil war, which has aggravated instability across the Middle East.

"Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and 'smart!'," Trump wrote on Twitter.

"You shouldn't be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!" Trump tweeted, referring to Moscow's alliance with Assad.

The Russian Foreign Ministry quickly replied that US "smart missiles" should be aimed at terrorists and not at the Syrian government.

"Smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, and not towards the lawful government which has been fighting international terrorism on its territory for several years," Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, wrote on Facebook.

Zakharova said that a possible US missile strike could be an attempt to destroy evidence of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma.

Russia's ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin told Hezbollah's al-Manar TV on Tuesday that US missiles "will be downed." 

He also said a clash "should be ruled out and therefore we are ready to hold negotiations".

On the ground in Syria on Wednesday, pro-Syrian government forces were emptying main airports and military bases over possible US strikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.