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WAR REPORT
Putin says Syria chemical arms moves 'inspire confidence'
by Staff Writers
Valdai, Russia (AFP) Sept 19, 2013


Hollande in favour of 'controlled' arms shipments to Free Syrian Army
Bamako (AFP) Sept 19, 2013 - French President Francois Hollande said on Thursday that France was in favour of sending weapons to the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) but only "in a controlled environment" and "with a number of countries".

Speaking at a press conference in the Malian capital Bamako, Hollande said: "The Russians regularly send (weapons) but we will do it in a broader context, with a number of countries and a framework which can be controlled, because we cannot have a situation where weapons end up with Islamists."

"We always said we wanted to control the supply of weapons if we did this, so that they go to the FSA," added the French president, who was in Mali for the inauguration of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

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

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 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."

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.

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

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.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he was confident but not 100 percent sure that Syria would carry out its commitments to destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles under a Russia-US agreement.

"Will we manage to carry it through? I can't say 100 percent, but all that we have seen recently, in the last few days, inspires confidence that it is possible and that it will be done," Putin said at a meeting of the Valdai international discussion club with Western politicians and journalists in the northwestern Novgorod region.

Putin said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime was already putting into practice the proposals announced by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Saturday.

The framework agreement agreed by the two countries calls for Syria to hand over all its chemical weapons for destruction by mid-2014.

"Will we manage to convince Assad or not? I don't know," Putin said. "But so far everything looks as if Syria has fully agreed with our proposal and is ready to act according to the plan that is being developed by the international community at the United Nations."

In a first step, Syria has already announced it will abide by the terms of the international ban on chemical weapons, Putin said.

"These are practical steps that the Syrian government has already taken."

The US-Russia plan is the result of intense diplomacy to avert US-led military action against the Syrian regime, which Washington and its allies blame for a deadly gas attack on a Damascus suburb last month.

The US has however insisted that the threat of force should remain on the table should Syria fail to comply with the agreement.

"If the attempts to resolve the problem peacefully aren't successful, this will be extremely bad," Putin acknowledged.

But he insisted that only the UN Security Council could discuss the question of whether to use force against Syria.

The Russian leader, whose government is Syria's most powerful ally, insisted it was not proven who was behind the chemical weapons attack in Ghouta that killed hundreds of people including many children on August 21.

"It's clear that (chemical) arms were used... It's just not clear who did it," he said.

"We talk all the time about the responsibility of the Assad regime if he used them. But what if the opposition used them? No one says what we will do with the opposition then, and this is not an idle question," Putin said.

"We have every reason to believe that it was a provocation."

He claimed that the chemical attack was set up by rebel forces to appear as if it was carried out by Assad's regime.

He argued that this was done in a "primitive" way because the attack used an outdated type of shell made in the Soviet Union that the Syrian army no longer uses.

Putin warned Washington against supporting rebel forces, saying it would have to deal with the consequences of helping Al-Qaeda-linked fighters.

"You will help them take power, and then what? Will you swat them away with a newspaper?"

He also spoke about the role of Israel in the region, saying that Syria had developed its chemical weapons as a counterweight to Israel, which is widely believed to be nuclear-armed.

"Chemical weapons appeared in Syria as an alternative to the nuclear weapons of Israel, we know this very well," Putin said.

"The technical advantage of Israel -- we need to say this directly -- is such that it doesn't need nuclear weapons. Israel is already in a technical military sense several heads above the countries in the region," he said.

"Nuclear weapons just make it a target. They just create foreign policy problems."

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