The EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton says EU foreign ministers believe the Assad regime was probably behind last month's alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria but stopped short of immediate military action.
EU foreign ministers who consulted over Syria with visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry remained skeptical on Saturday, saying a "clear and strong response" must await a report by UN chemical weapons inspectors.
Ashton, summarizing Saturday's encounter in Vilnius, the capital of current EU council president Lithuania, said the EU "underscores … the need to move forward with addressing the Syrian crisis through the UN process."
Kerry said he would share his EU counterparts' concerns with other US administration officials. President Barack Obama is awaiting a vote in Congress on his plan to stage punitive military strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"We are very grateful for the statement that came out of the meeting today with respect to Syria -- a strong statement about the need for accountability," Kerry said.
Their pronouncements coincided with reports from Syria that government forces had shelled rebel positions near Damascus Saturday, killing 16 people. New fighting had broken out between rebels and regime forces near the Christian town of Maalula, north of Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The EU statement issued in Vilnius said there was "strong evidence" that the Syrian regime "was responsible" for the sudden deaths of hundreds of people on August 21 in an eastern district of the civil war-torn Syrian capital Damascus.
"The government is the only one that possesses chemical weapons agents and the means of delivery in a sufficient quantity," said the statement issued by Ashton.
The ministers had agreed, she said, that the world "cannot remain idle" to a "blatant violation of international law, a war crime and a crime against humanity."
Kerry and Obama publicly blamed the Assad regime more than a week ago while laying out the case for military action. Kerry cited US intelligence reports that sarin gas fired into an eastern Damascus district killed 1,429 people.
French President Francois Hollande, who had previously urged military action, displayed caution on Friday, saying that he would wait for the UN inspectors' report. Britain's parliament voted against military action last week.
In Vilnius, Ashton said EU ministers welcomed Hollande's decision to wait.
Germany on Saturday said it would add its signature to a statement calling for a strong international response on Syria. The statement was signed by half of G20 nations represented at Friday's fractious summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Referring to Saturday's talks in Vilnius, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said: "After we saw this excellent and very wise position of the European Union, the [German] Chancellor [Angela Merkel] and myself decided that we support now the G20 statement."
At the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg last week, Germany had been the only EU member of the G20 not to have co-signed the joint statement on Syria. Westerwelle said Saturday that Germany had wanted to wait for European ministers to agree on a common position before adding its signature to the document.
ipj/jm (AP, dpa, AFP, Reuters)