Russia: US Trying to Derail Syria Deal

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia on Wednesday accused the United States of promoting unverified reports about chemical weapons attacks in Syria in order to cloud Moscow's latest peace initiative, while the Syrian government dismissed the reports as "lies."

The United States and 28 other countries are launching a new plan to better identify and punish anyone who uses chemical weapons, amid new reports of a suspected gas attack in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus earlier this week.

In an interview with the Interfax news agency, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov accused the U.S. of promoting "rigged, unverified reports" of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria to hamper Russian peace efforts.

Russia is hosting peace talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi next week that some Syrian opposition figures said will run counter to U.N. peace initiatives.

Ryabkov's remarks came a day after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Moscow "ultimately bears responsibility for the victims" of the latest suspected chemical attack.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry dismissed the allegations as "unacceptable" and blamed Western nations for blocking probes and pressuring investigators after previous attacks.

The U.S. and Russia reached an agreement in 2013 to remove all chemical weapons from Syria, but there have been several reported chemical attacks since then, including one last year that led President Donald Trump to order a retaliatory missile attack on a Syrian air base.

The planned talks in Sochi could also be overshadowed by the heavy fighting in northwestern Syria, where Turkish troops and allied Syrian forces are battling a Kurdish militia.

France and the United States have urged Turkey to exercise restraint in its offensive on Afrin, where the United Nations says an estimated 5,000 people have been displaced.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the incursion is progressing "successfully" and will continue until the last "terrorist" is eliminated.

He renewed a threat to extend the offensive east to the city of Manbij, which is also under the control of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters. He said he plans to "foil games along our borders starting from Manbij," adding that "we will clean our region from this trouble completely."

Erdogan said that Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters have killed at least 268 Syrian Kurdish fighters since the operation was launched on Jan. 20. He said Turkish troops have suffered seven or eight losses.

At least 27 civilians, including eight children and four women, have been killed in the fighting in Afrin, mainly in Turkish airstrikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the civil war.

Ankara views the main Syrian Kurdish militia as a threat because of its links to Kurdish insurgents fighting in southeastern Turkey. The Syrian Kurds are the main U.S. ally against the Islamic State group in Syria, and played a key role in driving the extremists from much of the country's northeast.

The U.S. has urged Turkey, a NATO ally, to exercise restraint. American troops are based in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria but not in or near Afrin.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who is currently traveling in Asia, said Tuesday that the fighting "disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria" and "distracts from the international efforts to ensure the defeat of ISIS," using another acronym for IS.