Southern EU leaders defend US strikes in Syria

Leaders from seven southern European countries condemned the Syrian regime Monday for its alleged use of chemical weapons and defended the retaliatory U.S. airstrikes.

In a statement that ended a half-day summit near Madrid, the leaders of Spain, France, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Malta said they "condemned in the strongest terms" the April 4 chemical attack that is alleged to have come from President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

They went on to say the U.S. airstrike days later on Syria's Shayrat air base "had the understandable intention to prevent and deter the spread and use of chemical weapons and was limited and focused on this objective."

The meeting's host, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, said the leaders also "vigorously condemned" recent deadly terror attacks in Sweden, Russia and Egypt, and called for a strengthening in anti-terrorism cooperation.

French President Francois Hollande said the EU's duty was to strengthen its defense, protect its frontiers and fight against terrorism.

The informal meeting was the third to be held by the southern nations and follows gatherings in Athens last September and in Lisbon in January.

The group also discussed negotiations surrounding Britain's exit from the European Union.

On Brexit, Rajoy said the seven countries supported the European Council's strategy of "first the exit must be negotiated and then our future relation will be discussed."

He reiterated the EU's desire that the negotiations should finish in the best possible way for both sides.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said Britain "must be our strongest ally, our closest friend and our closest partner" after it leaves the bloc.


Associated Press writer Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.