A Russian soldier stands in front of an ambulance at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus © AFP

US president Donald Trump warned Russia to prepare for a US strike against Syria, shrugging off a warning from Moscow that it would respond by targeting American “launch vehicles” involved in any military operation that threatened its forces.

“Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” Mr Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning, in a reference to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

His tweet marked a sharp escalation in the war of words between Russia and the US over an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus and raised concerns about the risk of military confrontation between the powers following any US strike.

On Monday, Mr Trump said he would decide on a possible strike within 48 hours. Emmanuel Macron, French president, on Wednesday suggested that the US and its allies had decided to respond, but were working out the details of the military operation.

Theresa May, UK prime minister, appeared to be preparing to back a US-led attack on Syria. “All the indications are that the Syrian regime was responsible,” she said.

Hours after Mr Trump tweeted on Wednesday, however, Jim Mattis, US defence secretary, took a more cautious stance, saying: “We’re still assessing the intelligence”.

Mr Trump followed his early remarks with a second tweet which said the relationship with Moscow was “worse than it has ever been, and that included the Cold War”.

A Kremlin spokesman told the Interfax news agency that Russia would not take part in “Twitter diplomacy” and instead favoured a “serious approach”, adding that the “invented” chemical attack should not be a pretext for military action.

While humanitarian aid groups and western governments have pointed the finger at Syria, Russia says there was no chemical weapons attack.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, discussed the situation around Syria with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, in a call on Wednesday evening.

According to the Kremlin, Mr Putin “stressed the fundamental importance of respecting the sovereignty of Syria, and urged him to refrain from any actions that would further destabilise the situation in that country and pose a threat to its security”.

Alexander Zasypkin, Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon, on Tuesday reminded the US that the head of the Russian military had said his forces in Syria would not only shoot down any missiles that threatened them but would target the source of the weapons.

Valery Gerasimov, head of Russia’s armed forces, said in March: “In case the lives of our soldiers are under threat, the armed forces of the Russian Federation will take retaliatory measures . . . against missiles and against the delivery vehicles used.”

Last year, Mr Trump ordered the firing of 59 cruise missiles at an air base in Syria after a chemical weapons attack by the Assad regime killed more than 80 people. US officials warned Russia, who had personnel at the base, in advance of the strike.

On Wednesday, Syrian forces were reportedly put on 72-hour high alert as they started to move combat aircraft to the two Russian air bases in the country.

The pro-government Al Masdar News said that jets and helicopters were moved to the coastal Russian bases in Tartous and Latakia, with the assumption that the US would not target those bases because it would risk direct confrontation with Russia.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, confirmed that Damascus was emptying bases it believed could be a target of strikes.

Brent crude briefly pushed above $73 for the first time since December 2014 after Mr Trump’s tweets, before easing back slightly. The S&P 500 closed 0.6 per cent lower in New York.

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The US, France and the UK have been debating how to respond to allegations that Douma, a rebel holdout near the Syrian capital of Damascus, had been attacked with chemical weapons over the weekend, killing at least 40 people.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria in 2015 helped turn the tide of the seven-year civil war in favour of the Assad regime. Moscow has deployed air defence systems and combat aircraft to the country. In recent months, it has strengthened its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, according to IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.

On Tuesday, the US clashed with Russia at the UN over competing resolutions on a joint chemical weapons inspection mission for Syria. Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the UN, warned that military action could spark “grave repercussions”.

Later he told the US: “I would once again implore you — refrain from those plans that you have in mind for Syria.”

The World Health Organization on Wednesday demanded that Mr Assad allow its inspectors access to the site of the attack, saying that an estimated 500 people were “exhibiting signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals”.

Russia said it and Syria would back a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that was soon expected to arrive in Douma. The OPCW inspectors do not have a mandate to attribute blame, only to test for chemical weapons.

On Wednesday, buses continued to take rebel fighters and their families out of Douma. Just hours after the alleged attack, Jaish al-Islam, which controlled the town, brokered a deal through Russia to surrender in return for safe passage out of government-besieged eastern Ghouta.

Once the last fighters have been evacuated, the Syrian government will retake control of Douma. Some medical workers worry that the evidence of the attack could be diluted or destroyed in attempt to cover up the incident.

Additional reporting by George Parker, David Bond and Mark Odell

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