VILNIUS, Lithuania — The European Union called Saturday for a "clear and strong" international response to what it said was "strong evidence" that Syrian President Bashar Assad's government was responsible for a massive chemical weapons attack two weeks ago near Damascus.
But the EU statement stopped far short of endorsing a U.S. military strike — something that U.S. officials acknowledged many of the organization's 28 members do not support.
EU foreign ministers, after listening to Secretary of State John Kerry explain the U.S. position on punishing Syria with a limited strike, also indicated that no action should take place until U.N. chemical weapons inspectors release their report at least two weeks from now.
A similar delay was advocated Friday by French President François Hollande, whose government had said until last week that it was "ready" to participate in a U.S.-led military strike against Syria.
The EU said in its statement that it "hopes the (U.N.) preliminary report can be released as soon as possible and welcomes" Hollande's preference to await its results.
Kerry, speaking in a brief appearance here with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, who hosted the meeting, expressed gratitude for "support for efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable for what they have done."
While U.N. evidence of a chemical attack may allow some Europeans to feel more comfortable about a U.S. strike and nudge public opinion toward supporting it, others say no attack can take place unless the United Nations authorizes the use of force — a development that remains unlikely. China and Russia, Assad's main military and political backer, have indicated they will continue to veto any such U.N. Security Council resolution.
Linkevicius, echoing the uneasiness voiced by many European governments about military action without U.N. authorization, said in his appearance with Kerry that "those responsible should be brought to justice; we will make full use of the United Nations."
But neither he nor others who spoke at the conference spelled out what action they would find acceptable, short of a military strike and in the absence of U.N. agreement.
On Friday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called military action "ill-considered" and warned of "serious and tragic consequences" if it were carried out. He reiterated U.N. insistence that only the Security Council could authorize a military strike against a member state.
The Obama administration has said that its own intelligence has proved both that the attack, which it said killed more than 1,400 people, took place and that Assad's forces were responsible. It has described the U.N. report, which addresses only the occurrence of a gas attack and not who launched it, as irrelevant.
The Senate may vote this week on a resolution authorizing the use of military force. In the House, where only a small minority so far has said publicly it would support the measure, it remains the subject of sharp debate.
The European statement, read at a news conference here by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, called the chemical attack a "blatant violation of international law, a war crime, and a crime against humanity," and spoke of "strong evidence that the Assad regime was responsible."
"A clear and strong response is crucial to make clear that these crimes are unacceptable and that there can be no impunity."