Syria chemical ‘attack’: Russia rebel weapons claim rejected

Russian claims that a release of chemicals that killed and injured dozens of civilians in northern Syria came from rebel weapons on the ground have been rejected.

Britain's foreign secretary, a rebel commander and a weapons expert all said the evidence pointed to an attack by Syrian government forces.

Damascus denies its forces launched a chemical weapons attack.

The issue is overshadowing a conference on Syria in Brussels.

Seventy donor nations are discussing aid efforts in the war-ravaged country.

Syria chemical 'attack': What now?

The UN Security Council is due to hold emergency talks later following the release of gas in Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province which - according to UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights - killed 72 people, including 20 children.

What happened?

Footage from Khan Sheikhoun following the incident on Tuesday showed civilians, many of them children, choking and foaming at the mouth.

Witnesses said clinics treating the injured were then targeted by air strikes.

Some of the victims were treated across the border in Turkey. One woman in hospital said: "We were affected by the gas. We couldn't stand up. I felt dizzy and sick. I suffer from shortness of breath. I couldn't breathe.

Media captionVictims were treated for injuries, including asphyxiation

The Observatory cites reports from the area saying it was subjected to a further wave of air strikes on Wednesday.

What do the Russians say?

Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, acknowledged that Syrian planes had attacked Khan Sheikhoun.

But it said the aircraft had struck a depot producing mines filled with a poisonous substance, for use by militants in Iraq.

"Yesterday [Tuesday], from 11:30am to 12:30pm local time, Syrian aviation made a strike on a large terrorist ammunition depot and a concentration of military hardware in the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun town," Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konoshenkov said.

"On the territory of the depot there were workshops which produced chemical warfare munitions."

He said the chemical munitions had been used by rebels in the city of Aleppo last year.

"The poisoning symptoms of the victims in Khan Sheikhoun shown on videos in social networks are the same as they were in autumn of the previous year in Aleppo," he added.

Critics of the Russian statement say reports of the release of gas came hours before the times stated by Mr Konoshenkov.

Local journalists say there are no military positions in the town itself, but an array of broadly aligned rebel groups controlling the area surrounding it.

The response

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson responded to the Russian statement by saying: "All the evidence I have seen suggests this was the [Syrian President Bashar] Assad regime... using illegal weapons on their own people."

A Syrian rebel commander described the Russian statement as a "lie".

Hasan Haj Ali, commander of the Free Idlib Army rebel group, told Reuters news agency: "Everyone saw the plane while it was bombing with gas.

"Likewise, all the civilians in the area know that there are no military positions there... The various factions of the opposition are not capable of producing these substances."

A chemical weapons expert, Colonel Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, told the BBC that the Russian version of events was "pretty fanciful".

The idea that a nerve gas like Sarin could spread after a weapons manufacturing process had been bombed was "unsustainable", he added.

International moves

Wednesday's emergency meeting of the UN Security Council was called by France and the UK as international outrage mounted over the incident.

US blames Assad over 'chemical attack'

Britain's ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, said the incident was "very bad news for peace in Syria".

"This is clearly a war crime and I call on the Security Council members who have previously used their vetoes to defend the indefensible to change their course," he told reporters in New York.

Destruction at a hospital room in Khan Sheikhoun. April 4, 2017Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionWitnesses said clinics treating the wounded were subject to air strikes

In a statement, US President Donald Trump condemned what he called "these heinous actions" by the government of President Assad.

He also blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for what he termed his "weakness" on Syria. Critics pointed to tweets by Mr Trump dating back to 2013 that urged the US government to ignore Syria and focus on domestic problems.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused the Syrian government of "brutal, unabashed barbarism".

UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura said it was a "horrific" attack and that there should be a "clear identification of responsibilities and accountability" for it.

War without end? By the BBC's Lyse Doucet in Brussels

A summit on the future of Syria was always going to be difficult. This latest attack makes it even harder.

The European Union wants to start moving, however carefully, towards a discussion of how to rebuild Syria. It wants to use a prospect of funds as leverage in faltering peace talks at a time when momentum on the battlefield has shifted decisively toward the Syrian military and its allies.

But more civilian suffering will bolster those who insist there can be no money for reconstruction in government-held areas while destruction goes on. Another atrocity also highlights again the failure of world powers to find a way out of this punishing war.

One after another, world leaders announced their arrival in Brussels with strongly worded condemnation, and warnings of "a price to pay". But, yet again, Syrian civilians are paying the heaviest price of all.

Syria and chemical weapons

The Syrian government was accused by Western powers of firing rockets filled with Sarin at several rebel-held suburbs of the capital Damascus in August 2013, killing hundreds of people.

President Assad denied the charge, blaming rebel fighters, but he did subsequently agree to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal.

Despite that, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has continued to document the use of toxic chemicals in attacks in Syria.

Cost of fighting

Syria's civil war has raged for more than six years, with no political solution in sight.

Nearly five million Syrians have fled the country and more than six million are internally displaced, the UN says.

More than 250,000 people have been killed.

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