A Russian warship armed with cruise missiles is heading to the Syrian coast in the wake of the first direct strike by the US on Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The Admiral Grigorovich has been deployed from the Black Sea to head for the port of Tartus, which houses a Russian naval base.
“The ship will operate in the region in accordance to the changing military situation,” state media reported, adding that it carries cruise missiles, a missile defence system, artillery, anti-aircraft guns, torpedoes and can dock a helicopter.
The Admiral Grigorovich, which previously passed through the English Channel on its way to bomb Aleppo, is one of at least six Russian warships and four support vessels in the eastern Mediterranean.
The area was the launch point for 59 cruise missiles launched from two American warships in the early hours of Friday morning, killing at least six Syrian soldiers while destroying planes, ammunition stores and buildings.
Russia was among the countries that also used the base, but the US warned Vladimir Putin’s forces ahead of the strike and none of the Kremlin’s troops were killed.
Moscow condemned American bombardment of Shayrat airbase as a violation of international law and pledged to strengthen the regime’s air defences against such “aggression”.
“To cover the most sensitive objects in Syria’s infrastructure a set of measures will be soon implemented to strengthen and improve the effectiveness of the air defence systems of the Syrian armed forces,” the Russian defence ministry said.
A spokesman for Mr Putin said the strike had seriously damaged ties between Washington and Moscow, which swiftly suspended an agreement aiming to avoid conflict with US forces.
Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian Prime Minister, said the strike had brought Moscow and Washington to the verge of a “military clash”, claiming that the action was “good news for terrorists”.
Donald Trump said he ordered the strike after analysis showed the base was the source of a “horrible chemical weapons attack” that killed more than 80 people in a rebel-held town days before.
The President’s national security adviser, HR McMaster, said measures were put in place to avoid blowing up what the US believes was a “storage of sarin gas” at the base.
Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, said the administration had a “very high level of confidence” that the massacre in Khan Sheikhoun was carried out by Assad’s forces using sarin, which is banned as a weapon of mass destruction under international law.
Doctors said victims started to choke, vomit and convulse with foam coming out of their mouths, and referenced pupils showing symptoms of exposure to the nerve agent, with analysts from international charities supporting the claims.
Khan Sheikhoun has been hit by several subsequent rounds of conventional bombing, which killed a woman on Saturday morning according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Syrian government and Russia have blamed rebels they class as “terrorists” for Monday’s massacre, claiming a chemical weapons facility was struck by legitimate air strikes and released the gas.
Rebels denied the Russian defence ministry’s claims, while experts told The Independent they were not credible.
Assad’s government claims it destroyed its stockpiles of sarin following an international agreement struck in 2013, when the nerve agent was used to kill hundreds of civilians in Ghouta and almost sparked international intervention against the Syrian regime.
The latest strikes are the only direct action against Damascus taken by the US in the six-year civil war, where international attention has increasingly been drawn to the threat of Isis.
American and Russian representatives clashed at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday evening, with the US ambassador saying a line had been drawn over chemical weapons.
Nikki Haley told delegates Washington had taken “a very measured step”, adding: “We are prepared to do more. But we hope that will not be necessary.”
The UK’s ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, said Assad had been “put on notice” and claimed Moscow had been left humiliated by its failure to bring him to heel.
Russia’s representative angrily responded by accusing Britain of “colonial hypocrisy” and “lies” as it warned against military involvement in Syria.
“Stop putting forward these unprofessional arguments and accusations against my country,” Vladimir Safronkov said.
“Don’t even try to get into fights in the Arab world. Nothing will work and nothing will be achieved.”
The Russian defence ministry said the strikes at Shayrat airbase destroyed only six Syrian fighter jets and left the runway intact, with aircraft reportedly taking off following the bombardment.