The European Union called Saturday for a "clear and strong" international response to the Bashar al-Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, but said U.N. inspectors investigating the incident should report their initial findings before any action is taken.
The statement came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sought to persuade skeptical European allies to join an international coalition on Syria after a Group of 20 summit ended Friday with a stalemate between Washington and Russia.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton read the statement, which she said reflected the position of all EU members, after four hours of talks Saturday between Kerry and EU foreign ministers in Vilnius, Lithuania.
"Information from a wide variety of sources confirm the existence of such an attack and seems to indicate strong evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible," it said, given that it was the only party with access to such weapons and the means to deliver them on such a wide scale.
The European Union called the use of chemical weapons a "blatant violation of international law, a war crime and a crime against humanity."
The statement did not explicitly endorse military action, but said the international community cannot remain idle and that "a clear and strong response is crucial to make clear that such crimes are unacceptable and that there can be no impunity."
At the same time, it said, the European Union underscores the need to address the Syrian crisis through the U.N. process. It hopes that U.N. chemical weapons inspectors who visited the site of the August 21 attack can report their preliminary findings as soon as possible.
It also welcomed comments by French President Francois Hollande that he would wait for the preliminary report before any military action was taken.
Kerry said he was grateful for what he called "a strong statement about the need for accountability."
The talks were expected to include "a fairly detailed discussion" of U.S. thinking on potential military action against Syria, senior State Department officials traveling with Kerry said ahead of the meeting. But the ministers would also discuss how to resolve the situation politically, they said.
Ex-Iran minister says he warned of sarin
Syria's government has blamed the chemical attack on opposition fighters, who it describes as terrorists with foreign backing.
Ali-Akbar Salehi, the former foreign minister of Iran, is reported by state news agency IRNA as saying that nine months ago, while he was still in office, he gave the Americans a letter through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, warning them about the influx of chemical weapons such as sarin gas into Syria.
On Thursday, Britain announced that its military scientists found traces of sarin gas in soil and clothing taken from a patient treated near the site of the alleged August 21 attack. A day earlier, Kerry said that blood and hair samples from near the site "tested positive for signatures of sarin."
The United Nations has said more than 100,000 people -- including many civilians -- have been killed since a popular uprising spiraled into a civil war in 2011. An umbrella group for the rebels said 44 people were killed Saturday.
Syrian activist groups and state media reported heavy clashes in the ancient town of Maaloula, in the Damascus countryside.
The predominantly Christian town, an hour's drive from the capital, is the last surviving place where western Aramaic is spoken, and it holds huge symbolic importance for Syrian Christians.
Meanwhile, Kerry appeared alongside French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Paris on Saturday, insisting, "This concerns every American's security. This is not remote. This not some far-off place where something happened that's just one Arab sect killing another Arab sect on some internal fight."
Kerry went on to liken al-Assad to Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, citing the three men as the only leaders to deploy internationally banned chemical weapons in the last century. He further accused al-Assad of having "no conscience" about what he does to the Syrian people.
President Bill Clinton always regretted not addressing Rwanda before the African nation spiraled into all-out genocide in 1994, Kerry said the former president has told him, and if the United States doesn't confront Syria soon, it could face more severe manifestations of the threat later. The 1995 sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway are an example of what happens when "ungoverned terrorists call the shots," Kerry said.
Many European countries are opposed to any military action without a U.N. mandate, which the United States has ruled out over what it calls Russian "intransigence" in the U.N. Security Council.
France is the only nation so far to commit to military action against Syria alongside the United States.
Hollande has promised to contribute to a military campaign but, facing political pressure at home, said he would wait for the U.S. Congress to give President Barack Obama authorization to strike and for the findings of the U.N. inspectors' report, which would effectively delay any military action.
Kerry will also meet with Arab League foreign ministers Sunday while in Paris. Those talks initially were to focus on the latest Middle East peace initiative, but Syria is now expected to be on the agenda, the officials told reporters.