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Dozens killed in suspected gas attack on rebel-held Syrian town

© Mohamed al-Bakour, AFP | A Syrian man in taken by civil defence workers following a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in northwestern Idlib province, on April 4, 2017.

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2017-04-04

Warplanes carried out a suspected toxic gas attack that killed at least 35 people including several children in a rebel-held town in northwestern Syria on Tuesday, opposition groups and a monitoring group said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said those killed in the town of Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province, had died from the effects of the gas, adding that dozens more suffered respiratory problems and other symptoms.

The Britain-based monitoring group was unable to confirm the nature of the substance, and said it was unclear if the planes involved in the attack were Syrian or those of government ally Russia.

Reacting to the news, the Russian military said it had carried out “no strikes” near the town Khan Sheikhun.

An AFP correspondent at the scene said the hospital treating the wounded was later targeted by another air strike.

The reported gas attack comes at the start of a two-day conference on Syria's future hosted in Brussels by the European Union and the United Nations.

Top EU diplomat Federica Mogherini said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad held “primary responsibility” in the suspected gas attack.

“Today the news is awful,” Mogherini told reporters. “This is a dramatic reminder that the situation on the ground still continues to be dramatic in many parts of Syria.”

Children

The Observatory said medical sources in the town reported symptoms among the affected including fainting, vomiting and foaming at the mouth.

The victims were mostly civilians, it said, and included at least nine children.

The pro-opposition Edlib Media Centre (EMC) posted a large number of photographs of people receiving treatment, as well as images showing what appeared to be the bodies of at least seven children in the back of a pick-up truck.

Photographs circulated by activists showed members of the volunteer White Helmets rescue group using hoses to wash down the injured, as well as at least two men with white foam around their mouths.

The Syrian National Coalition, an alliance of opposition groups whose leaders live in exile, accused President Assad's government of carrying out the gas attack and demanded a UN investigation.

"The National Coalition demands the Security Council convene an emergency session..., open an immediate investigation and take the necessary measures to ensure the officials, perpetrators and supporters are held accountable," the body said in a statement.

Permanent Security Council member France also called for the UN body to convene to discuss the attack, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned as "inhumane" in a phone call with Russia's Vladimir Putin.

Chemical arsenal

Idlib province is largely controlled by an alliance of rebels including the Fateh al-Sham Front, a former al Qaeda affiliate previously known as the al-Nusra Front.

It is regularly targeted in strikes by the regime, as well as Russian warplanes, and has also been hit by the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, usually targeting jihadists.

Syria's government officially joined the Chemical Weapons Convention and turned over its chemical arsenal in 2013, as part of a deal to avert US military action.

But there have been repeated allegations of chemical weapons use by the government since then, with a UN-led investigation pointing the finger at the regime for at least three chlorine attacks in 2014 and 2015.

The government denies the use of chemical weapons and has in turn accused rebels of using banned weapons.

Number of Syrian refugees tops five million

Tuesday's attack comes only days after forces loyal to Assad were accused of using chemical weapons in a counter-offensive in neighbouring Hama province.

On Thursday, air strikes on several areas in the north of Hama province left around 50 people suffering respiratory problems, according to the Observatory, which could not confirm the cause of the symptoms.

The monitor relies on a network of sources inside Syria for its information, says it determines whose planes carry out raids according to type, location, flight patterns and munitions used.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

Tuesday's gathering in Brussels has been billed as a follow-up to a donors' conference last year in London, which raised about $11 billion (€10 billion) for humanitarian aid programmes in the devastated country.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

Date created : 2017-04-04

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