Dozens killed in suspected gas attack on Syrian rebel area

A Syrian man from Idlib is carried by Turkish medics wearing chemical protective suits to a hospital in the border town of Reyhanli in Hatay province, Turkey, April 4, 2017. Ferhat Dervisoglu/Dogan News Agency via REUTERS

By Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A suspected Syrian government chemical attack killed at least 58 people, including 11 children, in the northwestern province of Idlib on Tuesday, a monitor, medics and rescue workers in the rebel-held area said.

A Syrian military source strongly denied the army had used any such weapons.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack, believed to have been carried out by Syrian army jets, caused many people to choke, and some had foam coming out of their mouths. All the children were under the age of eight.

“This morning, at 6:30 a.m., warplanes targeted Khan Sheikhoun with gases, believed to be sarin and chlorine,” said Mounzer Khalil, head of Idlib’s health authority. The attack had killed more than 50 people and wounded 300, he said.

“Most of the hospitals in Idlib province are now overflowing with wounded people,” Khalil told a news conference in Idlib.

The air strikes that hit the town of Khan Sheikhoun, in the south of rebel-held Idlib, killed at least 58 people, said the Observatory, a British-based war monitoring group.

Warplanes later struck near a medical point where victims of the attack were receiving treatment, the Observatory and civil defense workers said.

The civil defense, also known as the White Helmets – a rescue service that operates in opposition areas of Syria – said jets struck one of its centers in the area and the nearby medical point.

It would mark the deadliest chemical attack in Syria since sarin gas killed hundreds of civilians in Ghouta near the capital in August 2013. Western states said the Syrian government was responsible for the 2013 attack. Damascus blamed rebels.


The Syrian military source on Tuesday denied allegations that government forces had used chemical weapons.

The army “has not and does not use them, not in the past and not in the future, because it does not have them in the first place”, the source said.

A series of investigations by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found that various parties in the Syrian war have used chlorine, sulfur mustard gas and sarin.

A joint U.N.-OPCW report published last October said government forces used chlorine in a toxic gas attack in Qmenas in Idlib province in March 2015. An earlier report by the same team blamed Syrian government troops for chlorine attacks in Talmenes in March 2014 and Sarmin in March 2015. It also said Islamic State had used sulfur mustard gas.

The OPCW had no immediate comment on Tuesday.

France called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting about Tuesday’s suspected attack. Turkey, which backs the anti-Assad opposition, said the attack could derail Russian-backed diplomatic efforts to shore up a ceasefire.

“A new and particularly serious chemical attack took place this morning in Idlib province. The first information suggests a large number of victims, including children. I condemn this disgusting act,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said.

Reuters photographs showed people breathing through oxygen masks and wearing protection suits, while others carried the bodies of dead children, and corpses wrapped in blankets were lined up on the ground.

Activists in northern Syria circulated pictures on social media showing a purported victim with foam around his mouth, and rescue workers hosing down almost naked children squirming on the floor.

Most of the town’s streets had become empty, a witness said.


Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said 15 people, mostly women and children, had been brought into Turkey.

An official at the Turkish Health Ministry had said earlier that Turkey’s disaster management agency was first “scanning those arriving for chemical weapons, then decontaminating them from chemicals” before they could be taken to hospitals.

The conflict pits President Bashar al-Assad’s government, helped by Russia and Iranian-backed militias, against a wide array of rebel groups, including some that have been supported by Turkey, the United States and Gulf monarchies.

The Russian Defence Ministry said on Tuesday that Russian planes had not carried out air strikes on Khan Sheikhoun.

Syrian and Russian air strikes have battered parts of Idlib, according to the Observatory, despite a ceasefire that Turkey and Russia brokered in December.

Jets also struck the town of Salqin in the north of Idlib province on Tuesday, killing eight people, the monitor said.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the suspected attack, Turkish presidential sources said. They said the two leaders had also emphasized the importance of maintaining the ceasefire. Turkey’s foreign minister called the attack a crime against humanity.

The European Union’s top diplomat Federica Mogherini said: “Obviously there is a primary responsibility from the regime because it has the primary responsibility of protecting its people.”


Idlib province contains the largest populated area controlled by anti-Assad rebels – both nationalist Free Syrian Army groups and Islamist factions including the former al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

Idlib’s population has ballooned, with thousands of fighters and civilians shuttled out of Aleppo city and areas around Damascus that the government has retaken in recent months.

U.S. air strikes since January have also hit several areas in the rural province where jihadists have a powerful presence.

Following the 2013 attack, Syria joined the international Chemical Weapons Convention under a U.S.-Russian deal, averting the threat of U.S.-led military intervention.

Under the deal, Syria agreed to give up its toxic arsenal and surrendered 1,300 tonnes of toxic weapons and industrial chemicals to the international community for destruction.

U.N.-OPCW investigators found, however, that it continued to use chlorine, which is widely available and difficult to trace, in so-called barrel bombs, dropped from helicopters.

Although chlorine is not a banned substance, the use of any chemical is banned under 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is a member.

Damascus has repeatedly denied using such weapons during the six-year war, which has killed hundreds of thousands and created the world’s worst refugee crisis.

(Additional reporting by Laila Bassam in Beirut, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Ercan Gurses and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Robin Emmott in Brussels, John Irish in Paris; Editing by Tom Perry and Alison Williams)

Rescuers say toxic gas dropped on Syrian town where Russian helicopter shot down

Video of people affected by chemical attack

By Lisa Barrington

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A Syrian rescue service operating in rebel-held territory said on Tuesday a helicopter dropped containers of toxic gas overnight on a town close to where a Russian military helicopter had been shot down hours earlier.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) accused President Bashar al-Assad of being behind the attack. Assad has denied previous accusations of using chemical weapons.

A spokesman for the Syria Civil Defence said 33 people, mostly women and children, were affected by the gas, which they suspect was chlorine, in Saraqeb, in rebel-held Idlib province.

The group, which describes itself as a neutral band of search and rescue volunteers, posted a video on YouTube apparently showing a number of men struggling to breathe and being given oxygen masks by people in civil defense uniforms.

“Medium-sized barrels fell containing toxic gases. The Syrian Civil Defence was not able to determine the type of the gas,” said the spokesman.

The Syrian government and its Russian allies were not immediately available for comment.

Later, state news agency SANA said rebels had fired rockets armed with toxic gas on the government-held old quarter of Aleppo city, killing five people and causing eight breathing difficulties. It gave no further details. Rebels have denied previous accusations of using chemical weapons.

The SNC said of the reported use of poison gas in Saraqeb: “After shelling, besieging and killing civilians and perpetrating war crimes on them, the Assad regime has resorted once again, and in breach of UN resolutions 2118 and 2235, to using chemical substances and toxic gases.

“The daily reality confirms that all the international agreements and previous security council decisions, be they about chemical weapons or otherwise, are meaningless for the Assad regime.”

The Civil Defence spokesman said it was the second time Saraqeb had been hit by toxic gas. The group was aware of around nine suspected chlorine gas incidents across Idlib province since the conflict began, he said.

The U.S. State Department said it was looking into the reported use of chemical weapons in Saraqeb.

“I’m not in a position to confirm the veracity of (the reports),” said spokesman John Kirby. “Certainly, if it’s true, it would be extremely serious.”

Monitors at the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence on all sides in the civil war, said barrel bombs fell on Saraqeb late on Monday, wounding a large number of citizens.

Russia’s defense ministry said a Russian helicopter was shot down near Saraqeb during the day on Monday, killing all five people on board, in the biggest officially acknowledged loss of life for Russian forces since they started operations in Syria.


The helicopter came down roughly mid-way between Aleppo and Russia’s main air base at Hmeimim in the western province of Latakia, near the Mediterranean coast.

Russian air power began supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad late last year, an intervention which tipped the balance of the war in Assad’s favor, eroding gains the rebels had made that year.

No group has claimed responsibility for downing the Mi-8 military transport helicopter.

Government and opposition forces have both denied using chemical weapons during the five-year-old civil war. Western powers say the government has been responsible for chlorine and other chemical attacks. The government and Russia have accused rebels of using poison gas.

U.N. investigators established that sarin gas was used in Eastern Ghouta in 2013. The United States accused Damascus of that attack, which it estimates killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. Damascus denied responsibility, and blamed rebels.

Later that year the United Nations and the Syrian government agreed to destroy the state’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons, a process completed in January 2016.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed in late 2015 that sulfur mustard, commonly known as mustard gas, had been used for the first time in the conflict, without saying which party in the many sided conflict it thought had used it.

(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Robin Pomeroy)

Russia calls for pact against chemical warfare by Islamic State

GENEVA (Reuters) – Russia said on Tuesday there was a growing threat from Islamic State militants waging chemical warfare in the Middle East and called for global negotiations on a new pact to combat what he called “a grave reality of our time”.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made the appeal in a speech to the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, a now largely moribund forum which clinched a major pact banning chemical weapons in the 1990s.

“However, we still face significant gaps related, in particular, to the use of chemicals for terrorist purposes,” Lavrov told the 65-member-state forum.

“This threat is getting extremely urgent in the light of newly revealed facts of repeated use of not only industrial toxic chemicals but also of full-fledged chemical warfare agents by ISIL (Islamic State) and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq,” he said.

Islamic State militants are believed to be responsible for sulfur mustard gas attacks in Syria and Iraq last year, the United States said last month.

A confidential report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that at least two people were exposed to sulfur mustard in Marea, north of Aleppo, in August.

“It does not leave any doubt that chemical terrorism is emerging not as an abstract threat, but a grave reality of our time which could and should be addressed,” Lavrov said.

“There is a growing danger of similar crimes being committed on the territory of Libya and Yemen,” he said.

Lavrov said there were reports of militant groups gaining access to scientific and technical documentation on the production of chemical weapons, seizing chemical plants and “engaging foreign specialists to help synthesize chemical warfare agents”, without giving details.

He said launching negotiations would revive the Conference on Disarmament, whose members include U.N. Security Council permanent members Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States, but which has not been able to clinch any disarmament agreements since “the last decade of the 20th Century”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

ISIS Has Enough Radioactive Material For Dirty Bomb

Australia’s foreign minister has said their intelligence shows ISIS has enough radioactive material to create a large “dirty” bomb.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told The Australian newspaper that ISIS has collected enough radioactive materials from hospitals and research centers in areas they have overtaken in the last few years.  She also said the group is now recruiting “highly trained professionals” to develop chemical weapons which could also be used to create “dirty” bombs.

“They seek to undermine and overthrow that order and as we have seen, are prepared to use any and all means, any and all forms of violence they can think of to advance their demented cause,” she said.  “That includes use of chemical weapons.”

“Chemical weapons often receive less public attention than nuclear and biological threats,” she also said, later adding, “However, toxic chemicals were, by far, the most widely used and proliferated weapons of mass destruction in the 20th century.”

Bishop is not the first international intelligence official to comment on the possibility of dirty bombs or nuclear weapons falling into the hands of ISIS.  Indian defense officials said that the terrorists are working to obtain a nuclear weapon from Pakistan.

Several intelligence officials are concerned about the approach of Ramadan, as ISIS has ramped up attacks in connection with the Muslim holy month.

France Calls For Use of International Force in Syria

France is calling for international force to be used in Syria if it can be proven that yesterday’s attack on a civilian population was the result of the government using chemical weapons.

“France’s position is that there must be a reaction,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the BFM TV channel. “A reaction that could take the form of a reaction with force.”

France, the U.K. and Turkey have all demanded action by the United Nations. Continue reading

Russia Accuses Syrian Rebels of Using Nerve Gas

Russia has released a report where they claim Syrian rebels fired one canister of chemical weapons into a village in northern Syria.

Russia, an ally and apologist for the Syrian government, has long been resisting international efforts to remove President Bashir al-Assad from power and has disputed results of multiple reports showing conclusive proof of the government’s use of toxic sarin gas against rebels and civilians. Continue reading

White House Joins World Leaders In Accusing Syria of Chemical Weapon Use

White House spokesman have finally joined with other world governments in confirming Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has used chemical weapons on their own citizens in an attempt to stop the civil war.

President Obama had called the use of chemical weapons a “red line” that would force American involvement in the ongoing war. Continue reading

U.S. Intelligence Agencies Believe Syria Used Chemical Weapons

On the heels of Secretary of State John Kerry saying that Israel had not provided evidence that Syria used chemical weapons against rebels, U.S. intelligence officials admitted they believe with “varying degrees of confidence” that Syria has used chemical weapons.

The White House said that the sarin nerve agent had been used on what they termed a “small scale”. The announcement was in a letter to members of Congress. Continue reading