A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus.
The European Union on Saturday laid the blame for an August chemical attack in Syria on the government of President Bashar al-Assad, but stopped short of explicitly supporting a military response by the West.
The carefully worded message from foreign ministers of 28 EU governments meeting in Vilnius allowed France to claim victory in its push to get the EU to agree that Assad was responsible for the attack in which more than 1,400 may have been killed.
But it also made clear that the bloc wanted the United Nations to have a role in agreeing an international response, reflecting the position of countries including Germany which oppose taking action before a team of U.N. inspectors can present its findings on the incident.
After the EU agreement, Germany said it would sign a statement supported by 11 nations at the Group of Twenty summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday that backed a "strong" response to the alleged use of sarin gas against civilians.
Germany said it did not sign on Friday because it wanted to see an EU consensus on the issue first.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the ministers meeting in the Lithuanian capital had agreed that information from a wide variety of sources "seems to indicate strong evidence" of the Syrian government's responsibility.
The government, she said, "is the only one that possesses chemical weapons agents and means of their delivery in sufficient quantity".
The ministers agreed that the world "cannot remain idle" and said a clear and strong response was needed to prevent any future use of chemical weapons in Syria, she said.
They made no direct mention of any military action, contemplated by the United States and France, however.
Both Paris and Washington welcomed the EU statement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, also in Vilnius, said: "We are very grateful for the statement that came out of the meeting today with respect to Syria -- a strong statement about the need for accountability."
Kerry's trip to Europe, which includes stops in Paris and London, aims to bolster President Barack Obama's push to persuade the U.S. Congress to authorize a limited strike against Syria over the August 21 attack.
BRIDGING EU DIVISIONS
Many EU governments have expressed reservations about using military force to punish Assad, now fighting a 2-1/2-year battle against rebels in which more than 100,000 people have died.
Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Washington should wait until U.N. inspectors have released their findings from a visit to the Damascus suburb where the attack took place.
Following pressure from Germany and other EU governments, France has changed course this week and said it would also wait for the U.N. findings.
"We have all welcomed that France decided to wait," Westerwelle said in Vilnius.
"We have expressed our clear expectation to our American partners that it is better to follow the French example before any kind of actions that are being discussed in capitals."
Westerwelle and his EU counterparts urged the U.N. to release a preliminary report on its mission as soon as possible.
A senior U.S. State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: "Secretary Kerry made clear that he would report back to the national security team the recommendations of some members of the EU to wait for the results of the U.N. inspection, but he also made clear that the United States has not made the decision to wait."
The EU also expressed support for the International Criminal Court to investigate Syrian officials who may have played a role in the attack for possible war crimes.
The Netherlands-based ICC needs authorization from the U.N. Security Council before it can act. Russia and China have so far blocked any referrals related to events in Syria.
"The EU recalls the individual responsibility of the perpetrators ... who must be held accountable, and the role of the ICC in investigating and judging such acts," they said.