Macron warns over Syrian chemical weapons in frank meeting with Putin

Russian president and French President Emmanuel Macron at their first meeting in the Palace of Versailles.
  • As Suicide Blast Targeting Busy Baghdad Restaurants Kills at Least 13

Emmanuel Macron, the new French president, has warned that France would respond immediately to any use of chemical weapons in Syria, while urging a closer partnership with Russia in fighting Islamic State (Isis) in the country.

“A very clear red line exists on our side – that is the use of chemical weapons by whomever,” Macron said at a joint news conference after his first meeting with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.

The highly symbolic meeting in the sumptuous setting of the Palace of Versailles was aimed at defining the two leaders’ personal relationship after tension and mistrust during the French presidential election campaign and suggestions Russia had sought to meddle in the French democratic process.

Emerging with Putin from two hours of talks and lunch in the 2,300-room palace, Macron said he wanted to strengthen cooperation with Russia in seeking a solution to the Syria conflict. He said this involved talking to all parties in a “diplomatic and political framework”.

But Macron said France would show “no weakness” if chemical weapons were used, and would immediately respond.

French spies amassed and publicly released evidence last month that indicated the Assad regime had used toxic sarin gas on the town of Khan Sheikhun, an attack that provoked the US to launch missiles on a Syrian air base in its first targeted attack against the Syrian president’s forces.

Macron said he favoured a democratic transition in Syria that would “preserve the Syrian state”. He said: “Failed states in the region are a threat to our democracies, and we have seen each time they have enabled terrorist groups to advance.”

“Our absolute priority is the fight against terrorism,” he added, calling for the “eradication of terrorist groups” — and Isis in particular — through closer partnership with Russia.

Macron had not been Putin’s candidate of choice and the Russian leader had handed Macron’s far-right rival, Marine Le Pen, a major publicity coup when he granted her a surprise audience at the Kremlin a month before the French presidential election’s first round.

During the campaign, Macron had harsh words for Moscow, accusing Russia of following a “hybrid strategy combining military intimidation and an information war”.

The Macron camp alleged during the election campaign that Russia had been engaged in disinformation efforts, and at one point refused accreditation to the Russian state-funded Sputnik and Russia Today news outlets, which it said were spreading Russian propaganda and fake news.

In the meantime, early estimates of fatalities and injuries varied. Citing unnamed police and hospital officials, The Associated Press reported that 13 people were killed and 24 were injured.

An officer in the Baghdad Police Directorate who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity put the death toll at 15 and the number of wounded at 47.

The blast occurred around midnight local time (5 p.m. ET), the officer said, and targeted restaurants and a famous ice cream parlor.

It came just days after the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day and fill Baghdad’s cafes at night.

ISIS claimed responsibility through its affiliated news agency, A’maq, though NBC News has not independently verified this.

Surveillance footage that captured the blast showed a large explosion on a tree-lined street filled with cars. Other images showed what appeared to be burning buildings, a smoldering car and bodies strewn across the ground.

“Another terrorist attack on Karada,” the former Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, wrote on Twitter. “This district has paid more than its fair share of tragedy, enough is enough.”

Guardian with additional report from NBC