Syria's worst chemical attack in years kills 70, including 20 children: White House blames Assad, Obama

A suspected chemical attack in rebel-held northwestern Syria killed dozens of civilians including children and left many more sick and gasping, causing international outrage Wednesday. The attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun killed at least 70 civilians and saw dozens suffer respiratory problems and symptoms including vomiting, fainting and foaming at the mouth, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.

Syria's opposition blamed President Bashar al-Assad's forces, saying the attack cast doubt on the future of peace talks. The army denied any involvement in a statement blaming "terrorist groups" for using "chemical and toxic substances".

At least 20 children and 13 women were among the dead, the Observatory said, and an AFP correspondent in Khan Sheikhun saw many people on respirators.

Photos and video emerging from Khan Sheikhoun, located south of the provincial capital of Idlib, showed the limp bodies of children and adults. Some were struggling to breathe; others appeared to be foaming at the mouth.

If confirmed, it would be one of the worst chemical attacks since Syria's civil war began six years ago. It was the third claim of a chemical attack in just over a week in Syria. The previous two were reported in Hama province, in an area not far from Khan Sheikhoun.

Opposition activists and a doctor in Idlib said it was the worst incident since the 2013 gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta that killed hundreds of civilians and which a UN investigation said used sarin gas.

The incident brought swift international condemnation, with the United States, France and Britain presenting a draft resolution to the UN Security Council demanding a full investigation.

This photo provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center on Tuesday, shows victims of a suspected chemical attack, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. AP

This photo provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center on Tuesday, shows victims of a suspected chemical attack, in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. AP

"This is clearly a war crime," British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told reporters. The Tahrir al-Sham rebel alliance, which includes Al-Qaeda's former affiliate, the Fateh al-Sham Front, vowed to avenge the deaths, calling on fighters to "ignite the fronts".

Faced with international outrage over that attack, Assad agreed to a Russia-sponsored deal to destroy his chemical arsenal. His government declared a 1,300-ton stockpile of chemical weapons and so-called precursor chemicals that can be used to make weapons, all of which were destroyed.

But member states of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have repeatedly questioned whether Assad declared everything. The widely available chemical chlorine was not covered in the 2013 declaration and activists say they have documented dozens of cases of chlorine gas attacks since then.

The Syrian government has consistently denied using chemical weapons and chlorine gas, accusing the rebels of deploying it in the war instead. Dr. AbdulHai Tennari, a pulmonologist who treated dozens of victims of Tuesday's attack, said it appeared to be more serious than a chlorine attack. In a Skype interview, he said doctors were struggling amid extreme shortages, including of the antidote used to save patients, Pralidoxem.

Most of the fatalities died before they reached hospitals, Tennari said. "If they got to the hospital we can treat them. Two children who took a while before they were lifted out of the rubble died," he said.

Dr. Mohammed Tennari, a radiologist and AbdulHaj Tennari's brother, said Tuesday's attack was more severe than previous ones in the province, most of which used chlorine cylinders.

"Honestly, we have not seen this before. The previous times the wounds were less severe," he said. The doctor, who testified before the United Nations in 2015 about renewed Syrian government use of chemical attacks despite claims it has destroyed its stockpiles, said there was a chlorine smell after Tuesday's attack, but it was mixed with another unknown "toxic gas which causes poison and death."

Mohammed Hassoun, a media activist in the nearby town of Sarmin, where some of the critical cases were transferred, said doctors there also believed it was likely more than one gas. "Chlorine gas doesn't cause such convulsions," he said, adding that doctors suspect sarin was used.

"There are 18 critical cases here. They were unconscious, they had seizures and when oxygen was administered, they bled from the nose and mouth," he told The Associated Press.

Tarik Jasarevic, spokesman for the World Health Organization in Geneva, said by email that the agency was gathering more information about Tuesday's incident. The Syrian American Medical Society, which supports hospitals in opposition-held territory, also said it had sent inspectors to Khan Sheikhoun and an investigation was underway.

Hussein Kayal, a photographer for the Idlib Media Center, said he was awakened by the sound of a bomb blast around 6:30 a.m., and when he arrived at the scene he found entire families inside their homes unable to move, with their eyes wide open and their pupils constricted. He put on a mask, and he and others took victims to an emergency room. He said he later felt a burning sensation in his fingers and was treated for that.

The province of Idlib, which is almost entirely controlled by the opposition, is home to some 900,000 displaced Syrians, according to the United Nations. Rebels and opposition officials have expressed concerns that the government is planning to mount a concentrated attack on the crowded province.

'Brutal, unabashed barbarism'

Washington condemned what it called a "reprehensible" attack by Assad's forces and US officials said his allies Russia and Iran must bring the dictator to heel. "While we continue to monitor the terrible situation, it is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.

Attack drew swift condemnation from world leaders, including President Donald Trump, who denounced it as a "heinous" act that "cannot be ignored by the civilized world." The UN Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday in response to the strike, which came on the eve of a major international donors' conference in Brussels on the future of Syria and the region.

In a statement, Trump also blamed former President Barack Obama for "weakness" in failing to respond aggressively after the 2013 attack.

"These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration's weakness and irresolution," Trump said. "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."

Photo provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center shows a man carrying a child following a suspected chemical attack, at a makeshift hospital in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. AP

Photo provided by the Syrian anti-government activist group Edlib Media Center shows a man carrying a child following a suspected chemical attack, at a makeshift hospital in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, northern Idlib province, Syria. AP

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said the attack was believed to be chemical and launched from the air, adding there should be a "clear identification of responsibilities and accountability".

The Observatory said the attack on a residential part of Khan Sheikhun came early on Tuesday, when a warplane carried out strikes that released "toxic gas". As well as those killed, at least 160 people were injured, it said, and many died even after arriving at medical facilities.

The monitor could not confirm the nature of the gas, but said the attack was probably carried out by government warplanes. "We ran inside the houses and saw whole families just dead in their beds," resident Abu Mustafa said.

"Children, women, old people dead in the streets." Russia's military, which has been fighting in support of Assad's government since September 2015, denied carrying out any strikes near the town.

Hours after the initial attack, air strikes also hit a hospital in the town where doctors were treating victims, the AFP correspondent said, bringing down rubble on top of medics as they worked. He saw a young girl, a woman and two elderly people dead at a hospital.

A father carried his dead little girl wrapped in a sheet, her lips blueish and her dark curls visible. Speaking to AFP, medic Hazem Shehwan said victims of the earlier attack had symptoms including "pinpoint pupils, convulsions, foaming at the mouth and rapid pulses".

Army denial

Khan Sheikhun is in Idlib province, which is largely controlled by the Tahrir al-Sham rebel alliance. The province is regularly targeted in government and Russian air strikes, and has also been hit by the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, usually targeting jihadists.

The Observatory said 16 people, including 11 children, were killed Tuesday by air strikes in Salqin, in north Idlib province. Syria's leading opposition group, the National Coalition, blamed Assad for the Khan Sheikhun attack.

Damascus officially joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and turned over its declared chemical arsenal in 2013, as part of a deal to avert US military action. That agreement came after hundreds of people — up to 1,429 according to a US intelligence report — were killed in chemical weapons strikes allegedly carried out by government troops east and southwest of Damascus.

But there have been repeated allegations of chemical weapons use since, with a UN-led investigation pointing the finger at the regime for at least three chlorine attacks in 2014 and 2015. The army again denied using chemical weapons on Tuesday, insisting "it has never used them, any time, anywhere, and will not do so in the future".

Peace talks doubts

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests. Successive rounds of peace talks, including a UN-sponsored meeting in Geneva last week, have failed to produce a political breakthrough. Tuesday's attack cast new doubt on the peace process, said the opposition's chief negotiator Mohamad Sabra.

"If the United Nations cannot deter the regime from carrying out such crimes, how can it achieve a process that leads to political transition in Syria?" he told AFP. A senior Syrian security source told AFP that opposition forces were trying to "achieve in the media what they could not achieve on the ground" by spreading images from the alleged attack site.

The UN Security Council is to hold an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss the attack following calls from France and Britain.

With inputs from The Associated Press and AFP

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Updated Date: Apr 05, 2017 11:47:08 IST

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