The U.S. State Department has dismissed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's claims that accusations of a chemical weapons attack by his forces last week were "100 percent fabrication," and criticized both Damascus and its ally, Moscow, for trying to "bury the truth."
Assad said in an interview with the French news agency AFP released on April 13 that his government had handed over all its chemical weapons stockpiles.
"There was no order to make any attack, we don't have any chemical weapons, we gave up our arsenal a few years ago," Assad told AFP in Damascus.
State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner called the Syrian leader's claims "vintage Assad."
"It is an attempt by him to throw up false flags, create confusion. Frankly, it’s a tactic we’ve seen on Russia’s part as well," Toner said.
"There can be little doubt that the recent attacks and the chemical weapons attack in Idlib was by the Syrian government, by the Syrian regime, and that it wasn’t only a violation of the laws of war but it was, we believe, a war crime."
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault also said Assad's comments are "100 percent lies."
"It's 100 percent lies and propaganda," Ayrault said during a visit to Beijing on April 14.
"It's 100 percent cruelty and cynicism," Ayrault added, mirroring the language used by Assad himself.
The Syrian government and Russia, Assad’s main backer in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, have claimed the toxic gas that killed more than 80 people in a rebel-held Syrian town on April 4 was released when government bombs struck a rebel-controlled chemical-weapons depot -- an assertion that Western governments reject.
But the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on April 13 that the Syrian government, "abetted by Russia's continuing efforts to bury the truth," still uses chemical weapons.
Addressing a meeting in The Hague of the OPCW’s executive council, Ambassador Kenneth Ward criticized Moscow for "straining to absolve the Assad regime again and again of any culpability" and for making "completely untrue" claims regarding Syria's total destruction of its chemical arsenal.
OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu told the Hague meeting that the preliminary assessment by the organization’s experts investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhun was "that this was a credible allegation."
He said a fact-finding mission had collected samples that have been sent for analysis and that the investigators are expected to "complete their work within the next two to three weeks."
Britain and Turkey say tests show sarin nerve gas or a sarin-like substance was used in Khan Sheikhun in Syria's northwestern Idlib Province.
Also on April 13, British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was “highly likely that attack was carried out by the Assad regime.”
The comment came a day after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told journalists in Moscow, “What we do know -- and we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusion -- is that the attack was planned and carried out by the regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad.”
Assad said he would only allow an "impartial" investigation into the incident to ensure it would not be used for "politicized purposes."
His interview was released a day after Russia vetoed a draft UN Security Council resolution requiring Damascus to cooperate with an investigation into the suspected attack.
With reporting by AFP, AP, and dpa