The Russian Defence Ministry on Friday accused Britain of staging a fake chemical attack in the Syrian town of Douma last weekend, a bold charge that comes amid Moscow's stern warnings to the West against striking Syria.
One day before a team from the international chemical weapons watchdog was to arrive in Douma, just east of Damascus, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that images of victims of the purported attack were fakes staged with "Britain's direct involvement, " without providing evidence.
White Helmets first-responder volunteer and activists claimed an alleged chemical attack on April 7 by the Syrian government killed more than 40 people in the town of Douma, allegations that drew international outrage and prompted Washington and its allies to consider a military response.
Separately, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned the West against proposed military action.
Mr Lavrov said Russian experts had already inspected the site of the attack and found no trace of chemical weapons, adding that Moscow has "irrefutable information that it was another fabrication".
The Douma attack has caused international outrage and prompted the US and its allies to consider a military response. French President Emmanuel Macron said France had proof that the Syrian government used chemical weapons in Douma, while British Prime Minister Theresa received her cabinet's approval for an "international response" in Syria.
Moscow has warned against any strikes and threatened to retaliate. At the Security Council on Friday, Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the West was interested only in overthrowing the Syrian government and urged the US, French and British leaders to refrain from military action.
"We continue to observe dangerous military preparations for an illegal act of force against a sovereign state," he said.
As fears of a Russia-West military confrontation mount, Mr Macron expressed his "deep concerns" over the situation in Syria in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to a statement by the French presidency, Mr Macron called for dialogue between France and Russia to "continue and intensify" to bring peace and stability to Syria. The Kremlin said that Mr Putin warned against rushing to blame the Syrian government before conducting a "thorough and objective probe".
The Russian leader warned against "ill-considered and dangerous actions ... that would have consequences beyond conjecture".
Mr Putin and Mr Macron instructed their foreign and defence ministers to maintain close contact to "de-escalate the situation", the Kremlin said.
Russian officials — both from Moscow and speaking at the United Nations — alleged quickly after Saturday's suspected attack that the images of the victims in Douma were fake.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also claimed that following Syrian rebels' withdrawal from the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, stockpiles of chemical agents were found there. The ministry also pointed at previous use of chemicals by the rebels in fighting with Syrian government troops.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow, Mr Lavrov reiterated a strong warning to the West against military action in Syria, saying any such "adventures" in Syria would increase flows of refugees into Europe.
"I hope no one would dare to launch such an adventure now," he said.
Russia has been a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and has helped turn the tide of war in his favour since entering the conflict in September 2015. Syria's civil war, which began as a popular uprising against Assad, is now in its eighth year.
A fact-finding mission from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is expected to begin work in Douma on April 14. Both the Russian military and the Syrian government said they would facilitate the mission and ensure the inspectors' security.
Mr Lavrov said Russia expected the OPCW team to quickly visit the site. The Russian military said its chemical experts visited Douma shortly after the alleged attack and found no trace of chemical agents in ground samples. It also said Russian officers found no patients with chemical attack symptoms at a local hospital, and no indication of any burials having taken place of the victims.
On Thursday, Russia's military said Douma had been brought under full control of the Syrian government under a Russia-mediated deal that secured the evacuation of the rebels and thousands of civilians after it was recaptured by Syrian forces. The government, however, said evacuations from Douma were continuing and no Syrian government forces had entered the town.
Douma and the sprawling Eastern Ghouta region near the capital, Damascus, had been under rebel control since 2012 and was a thorn in the side of Mr Al Assad, threatening his seat of power with missiles and potential advances for years. The government's capture of Douma, the last town held by the rebels in Eastern Ghouta, marked a major victory for Mr Al Assad.
Mr Lavrov said that "intelligence agencies of a state that is now striving to spearhead a Russo-phobic campaign were involved in that fabrication". He didn't elaborate or name the state.
In a reference to the US, he said that "it would only benefit those who are protected by the ocean and expect to sit there and engage in continuous efforts to stir up the region in order to advance their geopolitical goals".
Russia has dismissed the chemical attack as fake and strongly warned the US and its allies against launching a military strike in Syria.
Mr Lavrov noted that Russian and US militaries have a hotline to prevent incidents, adding that it was not clear if it would be sufficient amid mounting tensions.
"We are open for those contacts, they help to understand each other better," he said.