British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) – The US and Russian presidents have revealed the wide gulf between them over Syria, even as their foreign ministers were meeting in Moscow.
Donald Trump said Russia was backing “an animal” in Syria’s [president] Bashar al-Assad.
Vladimir Putin said the US had violated the law in bombing a Syrian airbase and that the level of trust with the US had worsened since Mr Trump took office.
However, Mr Putin did choose to meet [US Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson after the US envoy had held talks with [Russian foreign minister] Sergei Lavrov.
The meeting between the president and the US secretary of state had been in doubt, but a spokeswoman for the US embassy in Moscow, citing Kremlin officials, confirmed it was taking place.
Tension in ties has risen since a suspected chemical attack on the rebel-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun last week that left 89 people dead.
The US and its allies blamed the Syrian government, and the US fired 59 cruise missiles at the Shayrat airbase in response.
Syria denied carrying out the chemical attack and has the support of its main ally, Russia.
Speaking on the Fox Business Network, Mr Trump expressed his outrage at the chemical attack.
“You see these beautiful kids that are dead in their father’s arms, or you see kids gasping for life and you know… it’s over for them.”
He said he asked his defence minister for options and then “we hit them very hard”.
Referring to Mr Assad, he added: “Frankly, Putin is backing a person that’s truly an evil person… if Russia didn’t go in and back this animal, you wouldn’t have a problem right now.”
But Mr Trump also said: “Just so you understand, we’re not going into Syria.”
Speaking on Mir television, Mr Putin rejected allegations that Syria was behind the chemical attack, saying Syria had given up its chemical stockpile.
He said: “Where is the proof that Syrian troops used chemical weapons? There isn’t any.”
Referring to the US air strike, he said: “But there was a violation of international law. That is an obvious fact.”
And despite hopes that US-Russia ties would improve under a Trump presidency, Mr Putin said: “One could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved, but rather has deteriorated.”
The presidents were speaking as Mr Tillerson and Mr Lavrov held talks.
Ahead of the meeting, Mr Lavrov said Russia had “a lot of questions regarding very ambiguous and contradictory ideas (…) coming from Washington”.
Mr Tillerson said he looked forward to a “candid” exchange so that the two countries could better define and narrow their differences.
Mr Tillerson, who had cordial relations with Mr Putin when chairman of oil company Exxon Mobil, has warned that Russia risks becoming irrelevant in the Middle East because of its support for Mr Assad.
However, the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg in Moscow says President Assad is Russia’s key military ally in the Middle East and Mr Tillerson may need to rethink his belief that he can weaken Moscow’s support for him.
Further evidence of division was shown when Russia’s foreign ministry said Moscow would later veto a draft UN Security Council resolution by the US, UK and France requiring the Syrian government to co-operate with an investigation into the chemical attack.
“In its current form this project is unacceptable for us,” deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov told the Interfax news agency. “We, of course, will not vote for it.”
President Putin has himself called for an independent UN investigation.
The UN Security Council meeting is under way. US ambassador Nikki Haley said Russia was isolating itself from the international community, but also said the US was “ready to help bring this conflict to an end”.
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