UN investigates poison gas attack in northern Syria

Syrian regime denies responsibility for strike in Idlib province that killed more than 50

Videos released on the internet purport to show the aftermath of a suspected chemical attack on the rebel-held northwestern Syria province of Idlib. Video: Reuters

 

UN war crimes examiners say they are investigating a suspected poison gas attack that killed more than 50 people in a rebel-held area of northern Syria on Tuesday.

The White Helmets, a rescue group that operates in rebel areas, said that about 250 people were suffering from choking symptoms caused by an unknown gas after a government air strike hit the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said that the strike had killed at least 58 people, including 11 children.

It said the death toll was likely to rise because of the severity of the injuries, while medics struggled to find places to treat all the wounded. Doctors in the town told the group that most of the deaths were caused by suffocation, but observatory was unable to verify the claims.

The Union of Medical Care Organisations, a coalition of aid agencies, said up to 100 people had been killed.

The attack prompted condemnation from around the world. In a strongly-worded statement, François Hollande, French president, said the air strike showed that the regime of Bashar al-Assad continued to act with impunity “with the complicity” of its allies.

In a statement US president Donald Trump said: “Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilised world.

“ These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.

“The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.”

The White Helmets in Idlib said another air strike had hit a medical centre treating patients from the suspected chemical attack, forcing rescuers to once again move the wounded in search of another hospital to treat them.

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said that the use of chemical weapons, and any deliberate targeting of medical facilities, “would amount to war crimes and serious violations of human rights law”.

[CROSSHEAD]Air strikes

[/CROSSHEAD]The Syrian government told local media and Reuters that it was not behind the attack, arguing that it had hit a rebel warehouse that was stockpiling chemical agents.

“We deny completely the use of any chemical or toxic material in Khan Sheikhoun town today, and the army has not used nor will use in any place or time, neither in past or in future,” the Syrian army said.

But the attack comes after a string of air strikes on rebel areas in which government forces are suspected of using chemical agents. Attacks on Hama province, Syria, last week wounded dozens of people and killed one doctor, according to the Syrian American Medical Society, which operates in rebel areas.

Photographs released by activists, which could not be independently verified, showed rows of dead children with no signs of injuries, while other victims lay on the floor with their mouths frothing.

A video also said to be from Khan Sheikhoun showed a doctor pumping oxygen into a young boy, who appeared unresponsive, as he pointed to the boy’s pupils.

“We’ve got about three patients in this hospital, all of them are showing signs of pinpoint pupils. These patients have got clear signs of organophosphate chemical attacks,” the doctor said, suggesting that the gas might be sarin.

After a big suspected sarin gas attack on rebel areas outside Damascus, which killed up to 1,400 people in August 2013, Mr Assad’s regime joined the 1997 International Chemical Weapons Convention.

Late last year, Reuters reported that an international inquiry leaked by diplomats suggested that there were several Syrian military units that had been responsible for chlorine gas attacks.

Chlorine, which is not banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention because of its other uses, is a notoriously difficult substance to weaponise. But if inhaled, it can burn the lungs and drown its victims in the resulting body fluids.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) also indicated last year that it had discovered some traces of sarin and VX nerve agents in Syria in some of its visits to monitor the implementation of the deal, which destroyed 1,300 tonnes of declared chemical weapons.

Aside from internationally banned weapons such as poison gases, however, dozens of Syrians die every day from conventional attacks. Some 400,000 people have been killed in the six-year civil war between the Assad regime and the rebel forces struggling to oust him.

[CROSSHEAD]Fragile truce[/CROSSHEAD]

The fighting has continued despite Turkey, which supports the opposition, and Russia, which backs Mr Assad, brokering a fragile truce in December. The attack is likely to further undermine faltering peace efforts.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, spoke by phone with Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart, to “stress that the inhumane assault in Idlib was unacceptable and warn that the regime’s actions place at risk the ceasefire”, his office said in a statement.

The attack came ahead of a conference in Brussels at which 70 foreign ministers, international organisations and civil society groups will discuss the Syrian conflict.

The UN hopes to receive new pledges of funding at the conference for the $8bn it says its needs this year to support humanitarian relief in Syria and refugees in the region.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, said the attack was “horrific”, and suggested that it was calculated to damage the Brussels talks.

“Every time we have a moment in which the international community is capable of being together – 70 countries tomorrow – there is someone, somehow that tries to undermine that feeling of hope by producing a feeling of horror and outrage. But we are not going to give up,” he said.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017