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Freeland condemns 'very grave act' in Syria

Syrian children receive treatment on Tuesday at a hospital in Maaret al-Noman after a gas attack in the nearby town of Khan Sheikhoun. The Syrian military denied responsibility despite witness reports that Syrian fighter jets were in the skies before and after the raids.

MOHAMED AL-BAKOUR/AFP/Getty Images

The facts behind the Syrian chemical weapons attack must be clearly established so those responsible can be held accountable, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Wednesday.

Freeland stopped short of directly blaming President Bashar Assad's government for the attack, but said it would be a "damning indictment" of him if that turned out to be the case.

"The government of Canada, and I as foreign minister, am shocked and horrified. This is really a reprehensible attack against civilians and it is absolutely important the world take notice," she said.

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The minister spoke with reporters Wednesday via conference call from Brussels, Belgium, where she took part in the Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region.

"If confirmed, regime responsibility for an attack on its own civilian population and attacks using these types of weapons is a very, very grave act which must have consequences.

"It is extremely important to hold accountable, at an individual level, the people responsible for this heinous attack," Freeland said.

The minister chose her words carefully, saying the investigation into Tuesday's chemical attacks must essentially be bulletproof, so there is no doubt who is responsible.

Freeland said Canada and the U.S. are the two leading funders of the United Nations organization that investigates the use of the chemical weapons, which will play a role in establishing the facts of the attacks.

She said the international community must investigate, identify who did it, and hold them to account. She said the findings must be presented "in a highly credible international fora so they cannot be disputed in any credible way."

Freeland urged all permanent members of the Security Council to support a resolution by the U.S., Britain and France condemning the use of chemical weapons and threatening consequences.

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Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said the attacks have "all the hallmarks" of Assad's government and the U.S. may take action if the UN Security Council fails to act.

The UN envoy for Russia, which backs Assad, opposes the resolution, saying it is based on information from "discredited" groups.

Freeland praised Haley's comments at the Security Council, saying the U.S. has an important role in resolving the ongoing conflict.

She said Haley has been "very active, very strong and very outspoken in the debate today at the Security Council and personally I would like to really commend the work that she has been doing today and the strong position she's been taking."

Donald Trump refused to say Wednesday what action the U.S. might take against Assad. But the president adjusted his view of Assad, blaming him for the attack, after saying just days ago that removing him from power was not a priority.

"When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies, little babies — with a chemical gas that is so lethal, people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many, many lines," Trump said.

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One of Freeland's Liberal colleagues, Omar Alghabra, the parliamentary secretary for consular affairs, called the allegation against Assad "credible," given his government's past use of chemical weapons.

"But I can't say that for certain because we need an independent party to verify that."

Alghabra said the ongoing Syrian conflict is frustrating, given his personal connections to the carnage.

"My background is Syrian. I still have family in Syria, so watching these horrific images and hearing about these stories are heartbreaking," he said.

"We need to talk to Russia. We need to talk to other players in the region to ensure that they understand the consequences of continuing this."

- With a file from Bill Curry

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