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WHITE HOUSE, PENTAGON — The U.S. military fired a barrage of missiles into Syria early Friday in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack blamed on President Bashar al-Assad’s forces that killed about 100 civilians. It is the first direct U.S. assault on Syrian government forces.
The 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched about 4:40 a.m. local time from the U.S. Navy destroyers USS Ross and USS Porter, which are deployed in the eastern Mediterranean. The missile launch lasted for three to four minutes, U.S. officials said.
The office of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad described the strikes in a statement Friday as “reckless” and “irresponsible.” The statement added the attacks were “shortsighted” and a continuation of a U.S. policy of “subjugating people.”
Russia, which is providing troops and air support to the Assad government, condemned the U.S. military action, calling it “aggression against a sovereign state,” and said it was suspending a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. for flight safety over Syria.
U.S. forces are said to have targeted Shayrat Airfield in western Syria. A Navy official told VOA the airfield was targeted because it was most likely used to launch Tuesday’s chemical strikes on a rebel-held town.
Sarin nerve gas
“We have a very high level of confidence that the attacks were carried out under aircraft under the direction of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. We have very high confidence that the attacks involved the use of sarin nerve gas,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters late Thursday.
Tillerson said it was important to take action against the Syrian leader, because “as Assad has continued to use chemical weapons in these attacks with no response, with no response from the international community, he – in effect – is normalizing the use of chemical weapons, which may then be adopted by others.”
Action needed to be taken, he added, “to make clear that these chemical weapons continue to be a violation of international norms.”
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the strikes avoided depots located on the air base where U.S. officials believe sarin is being stored.
“Obviously, the regime will retain a capacity to commit mass murder with chemical weapons beyond this airfield,” McMaster said. But, he added, “This was not a small strike.”
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said the targets included aircraft, structures, petroleum and logistical storage, and ammunition supply bunkers.
“Initial indications are that this strike has severely damaged or destroyed Syrian aircraft and support infrastructure and equipment at Shayrat Airfield, reducing the Syrian government’s ability to deliver chemical weapons,” Davis said in a statement.
Tillerson added, “We feel that the strike itself was proportional because it was targeted at the facility that delivered this most recent chemical weapons attack.”