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UN council weighs gas attack probe to avert US-Russian clash over Syria

The new draft, presented by 10 UN Security Council countries, urges cooperation on chemical weapons investigation
At least 86 people - including 27 children - died in suspected gas attack in Khan Sheikhun (Reuters)

Seeking to avert a clash between Russia and the West, 10 members of the UN Security Council on Thursday circulated a compromise resolution demanding a full investigation of the suspected chemical attack in Syria, diplomats said.

The new text - the third now before the council on investigating the apparent gas attack - was presented ahead of a closed-door meeting of the 15-member council on Syria on Thursday evening.

It remained unclear if Russia or the other four permanent council members would back the compromise presented, as the United States weighed military options against Damascus.

Britain, France and the United States pushed for a vote later on Thursday on their draft text in response to the Tuesday strike on a rebel-held town in Idlib province that shocked the world.

At least 86 people, including 27 children, died in Khan Sheikhun. Results from autopsies performed on victims point to exposure to the deadly sarin nerve agent, according to Turkish health officials.

Britain, France and the US are permanent council members along with Russia and China.

The 10 non-permanent members are Egypt, Japan, Senegal, Ukraine, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Italy, Kazakhstan and Sweden.

Their compromise text would drop demands that Syria hand over information on its military operations on the day of the strike, replacing them with language from a previous resolution urging cooperation on chemical weapons investigations, diplomats said.

"There are efforts to find a way forward that might be a compromise," Swedish Ambassador Olof Skoog told reporters.

"We are going to try to make sure we have a good discussion before there are any votes."

Russia has rejected the proposed Western-backed resolution as "categorically unacceptable" and put forward a rival draft that does not include specific demands that the Syrian government cooperate with an investigation.

The Russian text calls for an investigation but requests that the council approve the makeup of the team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) dispatched to Idlib, according to the draft seen by AFP.

Facing his biggest foreign crisis since taking office in January, US President Trump suggested on Thursday that he may be taking a stronger stance against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

"I think what Assad did is terrible," Trump told reporters travelling with him on Air Force One en route to Florida.

"I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity and he’s there, and I guess he’s running things, so something should happen," Trump said, stopping short of calling on Assad to leave office.

Going further than Trump's comments, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said there may be no future for Assad as Syria's leader.

“Assad's role in the future is uncertain, clearly, and with the acts that he has taken it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” he said.

A US official said detailed military options are being discussed by the Pentagon and White House that could include grounding aircraft used by Syrian government forces.

But Russia's deputy UN envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, warned on Thursday of "negative consequences" if the United States carries out military strikes on Syria.

"We have to think about negative consequences, and all the responsibility if military action occurred will be on shoulders of those who initiated such a doubtful and tragic enterprise," Safronkov told reporters when asked about possible US strikes.

When asked what those negative consequences could be, he said: "Look at Iraq, look at Libya."