France to offer ‘proof’ of Syria chemical attack

The French PM is to present top-secret documents to senior lawmakers on Monday to show that the Syrian regime was behind a recent deadly chemical weapons attack. President Hollande is under pressure to put the prospect of intervention in Syria to a parliamentary vote.

France to offer 'proof' of Syria chemical attack
Pro-Assad supporters in Paris protest against French military in action in Syria. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is due to meet with senior lawmakers on Monday, where he will present evidence that the Syrian regime was behind the deadly chemical weapons attack in Damascus last month.

France’s President François Hollande, who has vowed "to punish" Syria, has come under increasing pressure to seek approval for any military action in Syria from parliament via a vote.

He will hope the evidence, which will be given to the leaders of the various political groups, will be enough to convince skeptics that France should launch strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

“We are going to give the MPs everything we have – classified until now –  to enable every one of them to take on board the reality of this unacceptable attack,” said Ayrault on Monday.

Separately, Elisabeth Guigou, president of the foreign affairs committee in France’s lower house  – the National Assembly – told France info: “The PM will give representatives of this nation…evidence the attack took place and that it could only have been the regime who were behind it.

“This is not about attacking the regime but to stop Assad from being able to use chemical weapons against his people, around 1,400 of whom, including 400 children died [in the attack] according to our intelligence services,” Guigou added.

“This was not the first chemical attack, we have evidence of one taking place in April last year, but it is the biggest… The rockets carrying these chemical weapons could only have been fired by the regime.”

And in backing the case for military intervention, Guigou said: “If we do not put a stop to it, then the dictators who have chemical weapons will feel impunity to use them."

Ayrault will meet the main parliamentary leaders from both the Senate and the National Assembly to hand over previously top secret documents that have now been declassified.

On Sunday a government source also told AFP that similar documents that had been built up over years, showing Syria stockpiling chemical weapons, will soon be made public.

The French parliament is to hold a debate Wednesday on taking action on Syria, where more than 110,000 people have been killed in violence since an uprising against the regime began in March 2011.

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Minister’s fears over ‘300’ French Islamists in Syria

France's interior minister revealed on Thursday that hundreds of homegrown Islamist militants were signing up to fight in Syria and warned they could pose a security threat if and when they return home.

Minister's fears over '300' French Islamists in Syria
Members of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front, bearing the flag of Al-Qaeda in Syria where hundreds of French nationals have benn fighting. Photo: Guillaume Briquet/AFP

More than 300 French nationals or residents are either currently fighting in Syria's civil war, planning to go and fight or have recently returned from there, the minister, Manuel Valls, told France Inter radio.

Most of them were young men, often with a delinquent past, who had become radicalised, he said.

"This is a phenomenon which worries me because they represent a potential danger when they return to our soil," Valls said. "We have to be extremely attentive."

France, which has the largest Muslim population in western Europe, has increased its monitoring of Islamic radicals since  Al-Qaeda-inspired gunman Mohamed Merah killed seven people in and around the southwestern city of Toulouse last year.

It subsequently emerged that Merah had spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan and that French intelligence had been aware of his contacts with militants in those two countries.

According to British defence consultancy IHS Jane's, there are up to 10,000 jihadists from all over the world currently fighting in Syria on the side of rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime they want to replace with an Islamic state.

Experts in counter-terrorism fear that a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on August 21 could inspire more radicals to embark on jihad, or holy war, in Syria, increasing the numbers of a new generation of battle-hardened militants capable of wreaking havoc when they return to their home countries.

"If they are not able to set up an Islamic state in Syria, they'll come back disappointed," Marc Trevidic, France's top anti-terrorism judge, was quoted as saying earlier this week.

At least one French national has died fighting in Syria – a 22-year-old white convert to Islam from Toulouse only identified as Jean-Daniel, who was killed in a clash with government forces in August.

Valls has previously warned that there are "several dozen, perhaps several hundred, potential Merahs in our country" and described their presence as a ticking time bomb

In October 2012, police shot dead the alleged ringleader of an Islamist cell suspected of carrying out a grenade attack on a Jewish grocery store in a Paris suburb the previous month.

A prosecutor branded that homegrown group of Islamist extremists as the biggest terror threat the country had faced since the Algerian-based GIA carried out a string of deadly bombings in the 1990s.

Islamist groups threatened to stage attacks in France as well as on French targets after Paris intervened in Mali early this year in reaction to advances made by Islamist groups who had seized control of the north of the country.

Citing intelligence reports, Valls said there were more than 130 French nationals or residents currently fighting in Syria, about 50 who had returned home, some 40 who were in transit areas and around a 100 who were likely to travel to Syria.