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Britain won't 'stand by' as atrocities committed in Syria, PM says at Holocaust event

LONDON - Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron warned against standing by as atrocities were perpetrated in Syria during a speech where he discussed the lessons of the Holocaust.

British Prime Minister David Cameron listens to his Libyan counterpart Ali Zeidan at his official resident in London on Tuesday. Alastair Grant / Pool via EPA

“Somehow when genocide is taking place the shame of not acting sometimes doesn’t quite register properly until afterwards,” the prime minister said, just hours after the United Nations confirmed that chemical weapons had been used in Syria but stopped short of saying who was behind it.

“When something truly terrible happens, it’s as if we put up a defense mechanism and try and rationalize why we are powerless to act,” Cameron said, mentioning the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica in the former Yugoslavia and the 1994 slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994.

“The same could so easily be true of Syria,” Cameron said at an event marking the 25th anniversary of Britain's Holocaust Educational Trust. "With me as prime minister, Britain will never stand by."

Cameron also linked the use of chemical weapons in Syria to Israel: “And let’s not forget, chemical weapons ... also pose a massive potential threat to Israel.” 

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Israel has warned that it is prepared to take military action if it thinks Syrian weapons are falling into the hands of arch-enemy Hezbollah, a Shiite militant group and political party based in Lebanon. 

Last month, Cameron lost his bid to get the British parliament to support a U.S.-led military strike on Syria in the aftermath of the Aug. 21 attack in the outskirts of Damascus. The United States, France and Turkey, among others, blame the incident on the government of President Bashar Assad. The White House contends that the attack killed more than 1,400.

More than 100,000 Syrians are thought to have died since the civil war in Syria broke out in 2011, with some 2 million fleeing across the borders as refugees.

Over the weekend, Russian and American diplomats unveiled a deal under which Syria hands over its stocks of chemical weapons and forestalls, for the time being at least, a U.S. strike in retaliation for the Aug. 21 incident.

Earlier on Monday, the U.N. report confirmed that rockets loaded with sarin gas were used in the strike in the Damascus suburbs.

“Chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale,” inspectors concluded in a 38-page report, which included analysis of chemical, environmental and medical samples.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told reporters after the release of the report that the results of the investigation are "overwhelming and indisputable," and he called the use of chemical weapons "a war crime" and a violation of international agreements that ban the use of such weapons.

But, he said, it is "for others to decide" whether to attempt to determine who perpetrated the attack.

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After the U.N. released the report, President Barack Obama authorized the United States to provide chemical weapons-related assistance to rebel groups in Syria, including training for chemical weapons attacks and protective equipment for "select vetted members" the opposition forces.

The White House said the president was waiving provisions of the Arms Control Export Act (ACEA) that restrict the U.S. from providing munitions, credits and licenses to countries supporting acts of terrorism.

Fears that al Qaeda-linked fighters are among the forces trying to unseat Assad have dogged Western efforts to support the rebels.

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