Russian claims that a regime airstrike on a “terrorist” ammunition depot caused the deaths of at least 70 people in northern Syria have been rejected, as victims described the aftermath of chemical bombs dropped from planes.
International condemnation mounted on Wednesday over what appeared to be a targeted chemical attack on a rebel-held town in Idlib province, one of the deadliest since the Syrian war began six years ago.
The White House and the UK blamed the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for the outrage, which caused the deaths of at least 10 children, some asleep in their beds when the attack struck at dawn.
The World Health Organization said victims bore the signs of exposure to nerve agents, and Amnesty International said evidence pointed to an “air-launched chemical attack.” International agencies were working to establish the provenance of the agents used in the strike.
Russia claimed the deaths were caused by gas released when a regime airstrike hit a chemical weapons factory on the ground. But victims being treated in a hospital on the Turkish side of the border told a CNN team they saw chemical bombs being dropped from planes.
Dozens of victims have been taken to Turkey for treatment. The attack coincided with a two-day meeting in Brussels on Syria’s future. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson calls attack a ‘barbaric act.’
The Russian defense ministry claimed on its Facebook page that a Syrian airstrike hit “workshops, which produced chemical warfare munitions” in the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun.
It said that “terrorists” had been transporting the chemical munitions from its largest arsenal to Iraq.
But a chemical weapons expert, Col. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, told BBC Radio 4 that all signs showed the chemical used was sarin gas and that Russia’s versions of events was “completely unsustainable.”
“I think this is pretty fanciful and no doubt the Russians trying to protect their allies. Axiomatically, if you blow up sarin, you destroy it,” he said.
Hours after the attack, several people were injured when an airstrike hit near a hospital in the same town, where victims from the earlier attack were being treated, the Aleppo Media Center activist group reported.
The Syrian Civil Defense rescue group, known as the White Helmets, said the hospital was knocked out of service.
Victim: ‘I don’t know if my family is dead or alive’
Around 25 victims of the attack were being treated Wednesday at the Reyhanli Hospital in southern Turkey near the Syrian border. Several said that they saw a plane drop chemical bombs.
Mazin Yusif, a 13-year-old-boy, broke down in tears as he spoke of what happened.
“At six thirty in the morning, the plane struck. I ran up on our roof and saw that the strike was in front of my grandfather’s house,” he told CNN at the hospital.
He said he ran toward the house and found his grandfather slumped over. He ran outside to call for help. “I got dizzy and then fainted in front of my grandfather’s garage. I next found myself here in this hospital, naked in a bed.”
The boy’s grandmother, 55-year-old Aisha al-Tilawi, said she saw blue and yellow after the plane dropped the chemical-laden bomb.
“We started choking, felt dizzy, then fainted. Mazin was trying to wake up his grandfather. Three of my family died,” she said, lying in bed with an oxygen mask on her face.
Another victim, 31-year-old Ahmed Abdel Rahim, stared vacantly from his hospital bed as he explained he was hit with a poisonous substance carried by three rockets.
“I was in my house. I had difficulty breathing, but I feel better now. But I did throw up after getting to the hospital. I don’t know if my family is dead or alive. I don’t know anything,” he said.
The World Health Organization said some victims showed symptoms consistent with exposure to a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents. That conclusion was supported by Amnesty International, which said victims were “very likely” to have been exposed to a compound such as sarin.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it was gathering evidence about the attack. CNN saw a mobile laboratory provided by Turkish authorities at the Syrian border.
Speaking at a high-level meeting in Brussels on the future of Syria, the UK’s Johnson pointed the finger firmly at the Syrian regime.
“All the evidence I have seen suggests that it was the Assad regime who did it, in full knowledge they were using illegal weapons in a barbaric attack on their own people,” Johnson said.
Assad’s military has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and consistently blames “terrorist” groups when chemical attacks are reported.
But many of these are delivered through airstrikes, and no rebel or terrorist group in Syria is believed to have the capacity to carry out aerial bombardments.
A UN investigation in August last year found that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, both by the national air force and ISIS militants. It found two instances where regime forces had used chlorine as a chemical weapon, and one where ISIS had used mustard gas between 2014 and 2015.
UN emergency meeting
At the meeting in Brussels, the United States, Britain and France circulated a resolution to be presented at an emergency session at the United Nations Security Council later Wednesday. The short resolution condemns the attack, calls for those responsible to be held accountable and reminds Syria of its obligations to refrain from using chemical weapons.
If the resolution goes to a vote, it is likely to be blocked by Russia, which has used its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council at least seven times on Syrian resolutions.
Delegates at the conference in Brussels, including UN Secretary General António Guterres, said there was an urgent need to find a political solution in Syria.
“The images we have seen yesterday from Syria remind us all that here we have a responsibility to unite for real with a serious engagement the international community, the regional players, but also the Syrian parties to make peace,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
But US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has previously said that Assad’s ouster was not a priority for President Donald Trump’s administration.
“Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said last week.
The Syrian Coalition, an umbrella opposition group, compared the suspected chemical attack with one in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 “that the international community allowed to pass without accountability or punishment.”
A UN report found that the nerve agent sarin gas had been used to kill civilians in that attack, in which activists say around 1,400 people were killed.