April 24, 2018

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Syrians gather in capital in defiance after airstrikes

DAMASCUS, Syria - Hundreds of Syrians gathered at landmark squares in the Syrian capital Saturday, honking their car horns, flashing victory signs and waving Syrian flags in scenes of defiance that followed unprecedented joint airstrikes by the United States, France and Britain.

A few hours earlier, before sunrise, loud explosions jolted Damascus and the sky turned orange as Syrian air defence units fired surface-to-air missiles in response to three waves of military strikes meant to punish President Bashar Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.

Associated Press reporters saw smoke rising from east Damascus and what appeared to be a fire light up the sky. From a distance, U.S. missiles hitting suburbs of the capital sounded like thunder. Shortly after the one-hour attack ended, vehicles with loudspeakers roamed the streets of Damascus blaring nationalist songs.

"Good souls will not be humiliated," Syria's presidency tweeted after the airstrikes began.

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Missiles streak across the Damascus skyline as the U.S. launches an attack on Syria targeting different parts of the capital, early Saturday, April 14, 2018. Syria's capital has been rocked by loud explosions that lit up the sky with heavy smoke as U.S. President Donald Trump announced airstrikes in retaliation for the country's alleged use of chemical weapons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hassan Ammar

Missiles streak across the Damascus skyline as the U.S. launches an attack on Syria targeting different parts of the capital, early Saturday, April 14, 2018. Syria's capital has been rocked by loud explosions that lit up the sky with heavy smoke as U.S. President Donald Trump announced airstrikes in retaliation for the country's alleged use of chemical weapons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hassan Ammar

DAMASCUS, Syria - Hundreds of Syrians gathered at landmark squares in the Syrian capital Saturday, honking their car horns, flashing victory signs and waving Syrian flags in scenes of defiance that followed unprecedented joint airstrikes by the United States, France and Britain.

A few hours earlier, before sunrise, loud explosions jolted Damascus and the sky turned orange as Syrian air defence units fired surface-to-air missiles in response to three waves of military strikes meant to punish President Bashar Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.

Syrians shop at the Hamadiyah market in the Old City of Damascus, Syria, Thursday, April 12, 2018. The streets of Damascus were packed with people Thursday evening either going out to shop in one of the city's main markets to hanging out with families and friends at the capital's cafes, restaurants and sweets shops, people mostly appeared not concerned about a possible U.S. strike on the country going on with their lives as usual. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Syrians shop at the Hamadiyah market in the Old City of Damascus, Syria, Thursday, April 12, 2018. The streets of Damascus were packed with people Thursday evening either going out to shop in one of the city's main markets to hanging out with families and friends at the capital's cafes, restaurants and sweets shops, people mostly appeared not concerned about a possible U.S. strike on the country going on with their lives as usual. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Associated Press reporters saw smoke rising from east Damascus and what appeared to be a fire light up the sky. From a distance, U.S. missiles hitting suburbs of the capital sounded like thunder. Shortly after the one-hour attack ended, vehicles with loudspeakers roamed the streets of Damascus blaring nationalist songs.

"Good souls will not be humiliated," Syria's presidency tweeted after the airstrikes began.

Immediately after the attack, hundreds of residents began gathering in the landmark Omayyad square of the Syrian capital. Many waved Syrian, Russian and Iranian flags. Some clapped their hands and danced, other drove in convoys, honking their horns in defiance.

"We are your men, Bashar," they shouted.

Syrian state TV broadcast live from the square where a large crowd of civilians mixed with men in uniforms, including an actor, lawmakers and other figures.

"Good morning steadfastness," one broadcaster said.

U.S. President Donald Trump announced Friday night that the three allies had launched military strikes to punish Syrian Assad for alleged chemical weapons use and to prevent him from doing it again. Trump said Washington is prepared to "sustain" pressure on Assad until he ends what the president called a criminal pattern of killing his own people with internationally banned chemical weapons.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov attends talks with his Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Friday, April 13, 2018. Lavrov said Friday Russian experts inspected the site of the alleged attack in the town of Douma and found no trace of chemical weapons. He said Moscow has "irrefutable information that it was a fabrication." (AP Photo/Sergei Poliakov)

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov attends talks with his Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra during their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Friday, April 13, 2018. Lavrov said Friday Russian experts inspected the site of the alleged attack in the town of Douma and found no trace of chemical weapons. He said Moscow has "irrefutable information that it was a fabrication." (AP Photo/Sergei Poliakov)

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied any use of banned weapons. A fact-finding team of inspectors from the international chemical weapons watchdog was in Damascus and had been expected to head to the town of Douma on Saturday, scene of the suspected chemical weapons attack that killed more than 40 people.

Syrian TV said three civilians were wounded in one of the U.S.-led strikes on a military base in Homs, although the attack was aborted by derailing the incoming missile. It said another attack with "a number of missiles" targeting a scientific research centre destroyed a building and caused other material damage but no human losses. The network says the building in the research centre included an educational centre and labs.

It said earlier that the attacks targeted a scientific research centre in Barzeh, near Damascus, and an army depot near Homs.

Syrian media reported that air defences had hit 13 incoming rockets south of Damascus. It said the

The attack began at 4 a.m. (0100 GMT) with missiles hitting the eastern suburbs of Damascus, shaking the grounds from a distance. The sky looked orange over eastern Damascus apparently as a result of fires caused by the missiles hitting Syria. Air defence units fired surface-to-air missiles from different directions toward incoming missiles.

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting, Friday, April 13, 2018, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting, Friday, April 13, 2018, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

At about sunrise, the sound of explosions could be heard just as the loudspeakers from the city's mosques called for morning prayers.

A car with loudspeakers blaring the national song "Oh Syria, You Are My Love" could be heard driving through central Damascus amid the attack.

Syrian TV called the attacks a "blatant violation of international law and shows contempt for international legitimacy."

U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis said there were no reports of U.S. losses during the initial airstrikes.

"Right now this is a one-time shot," he said but did not rule out further attacks. He said the airstrikes were launched against several sites that helped provide Assad's ability to create chemical weapons.

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting, Friday, April 13, 2018, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting, Friday, April 13, 2018, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Britain's defence ministry said that while the effectiveness of the strike is still being analyzed, "initial indications are that the precision of the Storm Shadow weapons and meticulous target planning have resulted in a successful attack."

British Prime Minister Theresa May describes the attack as neither "about intervening in a civil war" nor "about regime change" but a limited and targeted strike that "does not further escalate tensions in the region" and does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.

"We would have preferred an alternative path. But on this occasion there is none," May said.

The decision to strike, after days of deliberations, marked Trump's second order to attack Syria; he authorized a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit a single Syrian airfield in April 2017 in retaliation for Assad's use of sarin gas against civilians.

Trump chastised Syria's two main allies, Russia and Iran, for their roles in supporting "murderous dictators," and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed a 2013 international agreement for Assad to get rid of all of his chemical weapons. He called on Moscow to change course and join the West in seeking a more responsible regime in Damascus.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, speaks at a briefing in Moscow on Friday, April 13, 2018. Konashenkov accused Britain of staging a fake chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma last weekend. He released statements by medics from Douma's hospital, who said a group of people toting video cameras entered the hospital, shouting that its patients were struck with chemical weapons, dousing them with water and causing panic. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, speaks at a briefing in Moscow on Friday, April 13, 2018. Konashenkov accused Britain of staging a fake chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma last weekend. He released statements by medics from Douma's hospital, who said a group of people toting video cameras entered the hospital, shouting that its patients were struck with chemical weapons, dousing them with water and causing panic. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russia's U.S. embassy released a statement warning that the airstrikes will "not be left without consequences." It said that "all responsibility" rests with Washington, London and Paris.

The allied operation comes a year after a U.S. missile strike that Trump said was meant to deter Assad from further use of chemical weapons. Since that did not work, a more intense attack would aim to degrade his ability to carry out further such attacks, and would try to do this by hitting Syrian aircraft, military depots and chemical facilities, among other things.

The one-off missile strike in April 2017 targeted the airfield from which the Syrian aircraft had launched their gas attack. But the damage was limited, and a defiant Assad returned to episodic use of chlorine and perhaps other chemicals.

Friday's strikes appear to signal Trump's willingness to draw the United States more deeply into the Syrian conflict. The participation of British and French forces enables Trump to assert a wider international commitment against the use of chemical weapons, but the multi-pronged attack carries the risk of Russian retaliation.

In his nationwide address, Trump stressed that he has no interest in a longtime fight with Syria.

"America does not seek an indefinite presence in Syria under no circumstances," he said. "As other nations step up their contributions, we look forward to the day when we can bring our warriors home."

The U.S. has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria as advisers to a makeshift group of anti-Islamic State fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. They are in eastern Syria, far from Damascus. A U.S.-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes in Syria since September 2014 as part of a largely successful effort to break the IS grip on both Syria and Iraq.

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Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb and Zeina Karam in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed reporting.

More Images

FILE - This Sunday, April 8, 2018 file image made from video released by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, shows medical workers treating toddlers following an alleged poison gas attack in the opposition-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria. With the Middle East on edge and many fearing inadvertent triggering of regional war, it is easy to forget that two weeks ago Trump shocked advisers in declaring an intention to withdraw troops from Syria. Now, apparently angered by a suspected chemical attack, Trump is threatening imminent military strikes against the Syrian government forces he blames and rattling a saber at Syria’s patron Russia. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP, File) FILE - EDS NOTE: GRAPHIC CONTENT - This Sunday, April. 8, 2018 file image released by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, shows a rescue worker carrying a child following an alleged chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria. With the Middle East on edge and many fearing inadvertent triggering of regional war, it is easy to forget that two weeks ago Trump shocked advisers in declaring an intention to withdraw troops from Syria. Now, apparently angered by a suspected chemical attack, Trump is threatening imminent military strikes against the Syrian government forces he blames and rattling a saber at Syria’s patron Russia. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP, File) Damascus skies erupt with anti-aircraft fire as the U.S. launches an attack on Syria targeting different parts of the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, early Saturday, April 14, 2018. Syria's capital has been rocked by loud explosions that lit up the sky with heavy smoke as U.S. President Donald Trump announced airstrikes in retaliation for the country's alleged use of chemical weapons. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar) Smoke rises after airstrikes targeting different parts of the Syrian capital Damascus, Syria, early Saturday, April 14, 2018. Syria's capital has been rocked by loud explosions that lit up the sky with heavy smoke as U.S. President Donald Trump announced airstrikes in retaliation for the country's alleged use of chemical weapons. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar) Syrian government supporters chant slogans against U.S. President Trump during demonstrations following a wave of U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar Assad for suspected chemical attack against civilians, in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, April 14, 2018. Hundreds of Syrians are demonstrating in a landmark square in the Syrian capital, waving victory signs and honking their car horns in a show of defiance. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar) Syrian government supporters wave Syrian, Iranian and Russian flags as they chant slogans against U.S. President Trump during demonstrations following a wave of U.S., British and French military strikes to punish President Bashar Assad for suspected chemical attack against civilians, in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, April 14, 2018. Hundreds of Syrians are demonstrating in a landmark square in the Syrian capital, waving victory signs and honking their car horns in a show of defiance. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

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