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EU ministers debate Syria with Kerry

Bitter divisions over Syria dominate the agenda as EU foreign ministers meet in Lithuania. Visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to persuade EU skeptics to back planned US and French military action.

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited EU foreign ministers meeting in Vilnius on Saturday, with international divisions over Syria still evident after Friday's rancorous G20 summit hosted by Russia.

Kerry went into informal talks in Vilnius, the capital of current EU president Lithuania, with the EU's 28 foreign ministers split over how to respond jointly to the suspected use of chemical weapons in Damascus last month.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (pictured above with Kerry) said chemical weapons usage was an "abhorrence," while saying that the Syrian conflict would only be resolved by "diplomatic and political means."

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EU, Kerry debate Syria

She added that the United Nations was an important factor.

The US and France have blamed the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while the world waits for a report by UN inspectors who took samples in Damascus last week.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Assad's ally, warned at the G20 summit on Friday that Moscow would "help Syria" if the US were to strike.

A statement was signed by only half of the G20 that the world must send a "clear message that this kind of atrocity can never be repeated."

Intense talks

In Vilnius, EU diplomats spoke of intense talks among EU ministers to find a consensus, with France and Denmark supportive of a US-led strike on Assad's regime, but Germany, Sweden and others refusing to endorse such action without a UN mandate or debate within a UN framework.

Nearly two weeks ago, Britain's parliament said "no" to military action sought by Prime Minister David Cameron.

A State Department official quoted by the news agency AFP said Kerry expected "a fairly detailed discussion about our thinking" in his talks with EU ministers.

Arriving in Vilnius late Friday, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle urged countries to await the UN inspectors' report on the attacks before reaching conclusions.

"We are convinced that it is necessary, before taking further decisions ... to await the report of the UN weapons inspectors. That is our appeal to those discussing and thinking about military measures," Westerwelle said.

His Swedish counterpart, Carl Bildt, agreed that the report was necessary for "building international credibility."

Survey: French sceptical

Despite French President Francois Hollande's call last week for military action, more than two-thirds of French people opposed this, according to a survey conducted for the French daily La Figaro.

Asked whether they would be in favor of French participation, 68 percent of respondents said no. That was a nine-percent rise on a survey done last week.

On Monday, the US Congress reconvenes after its summer recess to vote on a request by President Barack Obama to back military strikes on Assad's regime.

Later Saturday, Kerry is to fly to Paris for talks with French officials and to meet Arab League leaders.

Ipj/tj (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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