Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Moscow had information that the United States was planning to launch new missile strikes on Syria, and that there were plans to fake chemicals weapons attacks there.
Putin, standing alongside Italian President Sergio Mattarella who was in Moscow for talks, said Russia would tolerate Western criticism of its role in Syria but hoped that attitudes would eventually soften.
When asked whether he expected more U.S. missile strikes on Syria, he said:
"We have information that a similar provocation is being prepared ... in other parts of Syria including in the southern Damascus suburbs where they are planning to again plant some substance and accuse the Syrian authorities of using [chemical weapons]."
He did not offer any proof for that assertion.
The Russian military said Tuesday that Syrian militants are preparing to use chemical weapons and blame the Syrian government for the attacks in order to provoke more U.S. strikes.
Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the military's General Staff said the militants are currently stockpiling toxic agents in the areas of Khan Sheikhoun, the Jira air base and west of Aleppo, as well as Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
Rudskoi said the militants' aim is "to create another pretext for accusing the Syrian government of using chemical weapons and provoking new U.S. strikes."
A White House official said on Tuesday there is no evidence to support Russian claims that last week's poison gas attack in Syria was fabricated.
"The absolute mass of data we have in all the different vehicles we've gotten it ... it's just too massive for really any intelligence organization to fabricate in that short a period of time," the official said.
Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued an ultimatum to Russia: Side with the U.S. and likeminded countries on Syria, or embrace Iran, Hezbollah and embattled Syrian leader Assad.
As he embarked on a trip to Moscow following urgent meetings in Italy with top diplomats, Tillerson said it was unclear whether Russia had failed to take seriously its obligation to rid Syria of chemical weapons, or had merely been incompetent. But he said the distinction "doesn't much matter to the dead."
"We cannot let this happen again," the secretary of state said.
"We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people. Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role," Tillerson added in remarks to reporters. "Or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia's interests longer term."
On Monday the White House said President Donald Trump is open to authorizing additional strikes on Syria if its government uses chemical weapons again or deploys barrel bombs in the country.
"The sight of people being gassed and blown away by barrel bombs ensures that if we see this kind of action again, we hold open the possibility of future action," White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters.
"If you gas a baby, if you put a barrel bomb in to innocent people ... you will see a response from this president."
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