Mar 17, 2015 6:51 PM

Activists accuse Syrian military of deadly poison gas attack

The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) Syrian activists and the Western-backed opposition accused the government Tuesday of carrying out a chlorine gas attack against a rebel-held town that killed at least six people and left dozens, including children, choking and gasping for breath.

The purported use of poison gas on the town of Sarmin in northwestern Idlib province is the first alleged chemical attack since the U.N. Security Council approved a U.S.-drafted resolution this month that condemns the use of toxic chemicals such as chlorine in Syria. That measure also threatens military action in case of further violations.

But any such action would require the consent of the Security Council, which remains deeply divided over Syria's civil war. The U.S. and its allies support the opposition, while Russia backs Syrian President Bashar Assad and Moscow has used its veto on several occasions to shield its ally.

The attack on Sarmin, located some eight kilometers (five miles) east of Idlib city, took place late Monday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees activist collective. The two activist groups said that six people were killed and dozens more suffered from severe breathing difficulties.

A Syrian military official in Damascus denied any government role in the attack and blamed it on rebels. "The army did not and will never use any internationally-prohibited weapon," the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said government helicopters dropped four "barrel bombs," two of which contained chlorine gas. It said about 70 people suffered breathing problems.

"Unless the U.N. Security Council takes enforceable measures to ensure accountability, we would be fooling ourselves to believe that Assad will stop gassing innocent people in Syria," Coalition spokesman Salem al-Meslet said in a statement.

In a letter to the Security Council president, the coalition's representative to the U.N., Najib Ghadbian, said individual member states should bypass the deadlocked council and establish a no-fly zone over part of Syria to protect civilians.

An opposition medical official in the area of Sarmin said there were two attacks, the first targeting rebels and wounding 20 people, mostly men, while the second hit a residential area. He said the six dead were all from one family, including three young children.

Amateur videos posted online purported to show the aftermath of the attack. In one video, three children stripped of their clothes can be seen lying on hospital beds as medics try to resuscitate them. One dazed child slowly lolls his head to the side. A woman wrapped in blankets and showing no sign of life lies on another gurney.

Another video shows several bearded men inside what appears to be a hospital room as paramedics put oxygen masks on their faces.

The videos, which could not be independently verified, appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events.

Asad Kanjo, an activist who is based in the nearby town of Saraqeb, said that after the first bomb was dropped, warnings broadcast over local mosque loudspeakers urged Sarmin residents to head for their roofs in order to avoid inhaling the gas, which settles in lower-lying areas.

"There was some kind of chaos," Kanjo said via Skype. He added that residents usually avoid going up to the roofs for fear of being targeted by government aircraft.

Pro-opposition media said some residents of Sarmin fled to nearby fields.

In New York, the American ambassador to the U.N. said the U.S. was looking into the reports.

"We've seen the videos," Samantha Power told reporters. "They're gruesome, devastating. These kids, it's just the most heartbreaking thing you could ever see on video."

Monday's purported attack with chlorine would be one of the most serious uses of poison gas in Syria since a deadly chemical attack outside Damascus in August 2013. The U.S. and Western allies blamed Assad's forces for that attack, while the Syrian government accused opposition fighters of staging it to frame the military.

In the weeks that followed, the Obama administration threatened to carry out punitive airstrikes against Syria before Assad eventually agreed to dismantle his chemical weapons program and hand over his stockpile, averting U.S. military action.

Since then, however, Syrian opposition groups have accused the government of attacking rebel-held areas with chlorine gas on several occasions.

A fact-finding mission by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons concluded "with a high degree of confidence" that chlorine was used on three rebel-held villages in Syria last year, killing 13 people. It did not assign blame.

Last month, the OPCW condemned the use of chlorine in Syria as a breach of international law.

Chlorine was first deployed militarily in World War I, but it is no longer officially considered a warfare agent and was not among the chemicals declared by Syria when it joined the chemical weapons treaty. Using it as a weapon, however, is illegal.

The latest U.N. Security Council resolution condemns the use of toxic chemicals such as chlorine in Syria. It also threatens action against further violations under a 2013 Security Council resolution that banned Syria's use of chemical weapons. It applies to any party in the Syrian conflict.


Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Cara Anna in New York contributed to this report.


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