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French president and Saudi crown prince vow partnerships on Syria and economic issues

French president and Saudi crown prince vow partnerships on Syria and economic issues
French President Emmanuel Macron, right, with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Tuesday. (Yoan Valat / EPA/Shutterstock)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Tuesday that his country would support airstrikes against the Syrian government if an alliance including France, Britain and the U.S. called for such a military operation.

Mohammed, who was on his first official visit to France, made the comments during a news conference with President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

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"If our alliance with our partners demands it we will respond," said Mohammed, the heir to the Saudi throne.

Earlier, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir told reporters in Paris his country was "greatly concerned" about a suspected chemical weapons attack Saturday that aid groups and activists said killed dozens of people in the city of Duma in Syria's east Ghouta region, but made no mention of Saudi Arabia taking part in any potential intervention.

Macron said Tuesday that France had "red lines" regarding the access of humanitarian aid to Syria and the suspected use of chemical weapons by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Macron said he would announce in the "coming days" whether France would respond militarily.

France's decision would be separate from United Nations Security Council discussions over a possible international response to the alleged chemical attack, he said.

"We are going to continue an exchange of technical and strategic exchanges with our partners, particularly the British and Americans, and in the next few days we will announce our decision," Macron told journalists.

President Trump has blamed the Syrian government for the suspected chemical attack, called Assad "Animal Assad" and warned of a "big price to pay."

On Monday, ambassadors for the United States and Russia, an Assad ally, exchanged sharp comments during an emergency session of the U. N. Security Council to debate a U.S.-drafted proposal to create an independent panel to investigate poison gas use in Syria.

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley blamed Russia for refusing to condemn Assad, while Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia described the behavior of the U.S. and countries that followed it as boorish and said the alleged attack in Duma was staged by anti-Assad "terrorists."

On Tuesday, Macron also announced that he would organize a "humanitarian conference" on Yemen before the summer. Saudi Arabia has been criticized for its involvement in the civil war, which has included airstrikes and a blockade of aid to relieve a famine threatening millions of Yemenis.

Macron said France's position was clear: support for Saudi security and condemnation of rocket attacks by Houthi rebel militias inside Yemen, and a "wish to find a political solution to the conflict" with concern for "humanitarian demands."

"We are very attached to respect for international humanitarian law and we will continue to be vigilant about this," he said.

Macron spoke of future Saudi investments in France and joint ventures between the two countries in the media, telecom, leisure and luxury sectors. France has been a major arms supplier to the Saudis traditionally, but no big weapons contracts were announced during Mohammed's three-day visit.

The trip included the signing of contracts worth billions of dollars between French and Saudi businesses. Cultural links include Saudi Arabia being represented at the Cannes Film Festival for the first time next month. France is also to help Saudi Arabia set up a national opera and orchestra.

Macron invited Mohammed and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri for a gala dinner, a diplomatic move from France that sees itself as playing a mediation role in the region. Last November, the Saudis were accused of holding Hariri hostage after the Lebanese prime minister resigned while in Saudi Arabia, saying he feared being assassinated.

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Hariri eventually left Saudi Arabia and rescinded his resignation. Macron said the dinner was aimed at boosting attempts to stabilize Lebanon and improve relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Also Tuesday, a lawyer representing a Yemeni human rights group filed a lawsuit in Paris accusing Mohammed of "complicity in torture and inhumane treatment" in Yemen.

Taha Hussein Mohamed, director of the Legal Center for Rights and Development, along with two French advisors said they were suing over the "indiscriminate bombings" against civilian populations in Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Mohammed's visit was part of a whirlwind tour that included trips to the United States, Britain and Egypt. He is attempting to project a moderate reformist image. The Elysee Palace announced Macron would visit Saudi Arabia this year.

Willsher is a special correspondent.

UPDATES:

4:35 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times reporting.

This article was originally published at 11:25 a.m.

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