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US launches missiles at Syrian airfield in response to chemical attacks

In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) launches a tomahawk land attack missile in the Mediterranean Sea, Friday, April 7, 2017. The United States blasted a Syrian air base with a barrage of cruise missiles in fiery retaliation for this week's gruesome chemical weapons attack against civilians. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ford Williams/U.S. Navy via AP)

The United States has launched at least 50 cruise missiles at an airfield in Syria on Thursday night, according to multiple reports.

NBC News reported that the attack was in response to what government officials believe “was the Syrian government’s use of banned chemical weapons blamed for having killed at least 100 people on Tuesday.”

Thursday’s attack was the first direct American assault on the Syrian government and Donald Trump’s most dramatic military order since becoming president.

The surprise strike marked a striking reversal for Trump, who warned as a candidate against the U.S. getting pulled into the Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year. But the president appeared moved by the photos of children killed in the chemical attack, calling it a “disgrace to humanity” that crossed “a lot of lines.”

About 60 U.S. Tomahawk missiles, fired from warships in the Mediterranean Sea, targeted an air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack that American officials believe Syrian government aircraft launched with a nerve agent, possibly sarin.

A Syrian official tells The Associated Press that the U.S. missile attack that hit a number of military targets in central Syria has left a number of dead and wounded.

Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs province, didn’t say how many were killed in the early Friday attack. He said a fire raged in the air base in Homs for over an hour following the barrage of missiles.

Barazi says the evacuation and transfer of casualties is ongoing.

The airbase, Ash Sha’irat in western Syria, is where the United States believes the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired the banned weapons, according to NBC News.

In a public statement from Mar-A-Lago in Florida on Thursday night, Trump confirmed that he ordered the strikes and called for “all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria. And also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.”

Trump also used the statement to tout his “America First” philosophy, saying “it is in this vital national security interest of the U.S. to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.”

The president did not announce the attacks in advance, though he and other national security officials ratcheted up their warnings to the Syrian government throughout the day Thursday.

“I think what happened in Syria is one of the truly egregious crimes and shouldn’t have happened and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” Trump told reporters traveling on Air Force One to Florida, where he was holding a two-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The show of force in Syria raises legal questions. It’s unclear what authority Trump is relying on to attack another government. The president was also not given authority by Congress to authorize the attack.

The strike came as Trump was hosting Xi in meetings focused in part on another pressing U.S. security dilemma: North Korea’s nuclear program. Trump’s actions in Syria could signal to China that the new president isn’t afraid of unilateral military steps. even if key nations like China are standing in the way.

U.S. military officials sought to portray the strikes as an appropriate, measured response. But the assault still risks plunging America into the middle of Syria’s conflict, complicating the safety of the hundreds of U.S. forces fighting a separate campaign against the Islamic State group in the north of the country. If Assad’s military persists in further gas attacks, the Trump administration might logically pursue increased retaliation.

Russia and Iran, Assad’s allies, pose other problems. Russian military personnel and aircraft are embedded with Syria’s, and Iranian troops and paramilitary forces are also on the ground helping Assad fight the array of opposition groups hoping to topple him.

Before the strikes, U.S. military officials said they informed their Russian counterparts of the impending attack. The goal was to avoid any accident involving Russian forces.

Nevertheless, Russia’s Deputy U.N. ambassador Vladimir Safronkov warned that any negative consequences from the strikes would be on the “shoulders of those who initiated such a doubtful and tragic enterprise.”

But in a statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson placed the blame of the chemical attack on Russia’s shoulders, saying its officials have either been “complicit, or simply incompetent” after Russian President Vladimir Putin made an agreement in 2013 with former President Barack Obama to dispose of all chemical weapons from Syria.

In a joint statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham, Arizona Sen. John McCain praised the move, calling it a “pivotal moment” for which Trump “deserves the support of the American people.”

“Building on tonight’s credible first step, we must finally learn the lessons of history and ensure that tactical success leads to strategic progress,” part of the statement read. “That means following through with a new, comprehensive strategy in coordination with our allies and partners to end the conflict in Syria.”

According to a Gallup poll from February, Americans were fairly split over the question of military intervention in Syria. Just 34 percent said they thought we should be more involved in Syria, while 30 percent said we should be less involved.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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