US vows to fight those who attack 'innocents'

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G7 foreign ministers hold two days of talks, Syrian conflict to dominate discussion

LUCCA, ITALY The US will hold responsible anyone who commits crimes against humanity, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday, days after the US military unexpectedly attacked Syria.

Mr Tillerson is in Italy for a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialised nations, with his counterparts from Europe and Japan eager for clarity from Washington on numerous diplomatic issues.

Before the April 7 missile strikes on Syria, US President Donald Trump had indicated he would be less interventionist than his predecessors and willing to overlook human rights abuses if it was in US interests.

But Mr Tillerson said the US would not let such crimes go unchallenged.

"We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world," he told reporters while commemorating a 1944 German Nazi massacre in Sant'Anna di Stazzema.

Mr Trump ordered his military to strike Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces which killed scores of civilians, including many children.

European ministers are eager to hear whether Washington is now committed to overthrowing Mr Assad, who is backed by Russia.

They also want the US to put pressure on Moscow to distance itself from Mr Assad.

Mr Tillerson had said the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria remained the priority, while the US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that "regime change" in Syria was also a priority.

The mixed messages have confused and frustrated European allies, who are eager for full US support for a political solution based on a transfer of power in Damascus.

"The Americans say they agree, but there's nothing to show for it behind (the scenes). They are absent from this and are navigating aimlessly in the dark," said a senior European diplomat, who declined to be named.

Italy, Germany, France and Britain have invited Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar to sit down with the G7 group to discuss Syria.

All these countries oppose Mr Assad's rule.

The foreign ministers' discussions in Tuscany will prepare the way for a leaders' summit in Sicily at the end of next month.

Efforts to reach an agreement on statements ahead of time - a normal part of pre-meeting G7 diplomacy - have moved slowly, partly because of a difficult transition at the US State Department, where many key positions remain unfilled.

Some issues, such as trade and climate change, are likely to be ducked this week.

But, the foreign ministers will talk about growing tensions with North Korea, as the US moves a navy strike group near the Korean peninsula amid concerns over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

They will also discuss violence-plagued Libya, the struggle against terrorism, relations with Iran and instability in Ukraine. - REUTERS

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