‘Hit with a truck’ – How Iran’s missiles inflicted brain injury on U.S. troops

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

(Reuters) – In the wee hours of Jan. 8, Tehran retaliated over the U.S. killing of Iran’s most powerful general by bombarding the al-Asad air base in Iraq.

Among the 2,000 troops stationed there was U.S. Army Specialist Kimo Keltz, who recalls hearing a missile whistling through the sky as he lay on the deck of a guard tower. The explosion lifted his body – in full armor – an inch or two off the floor.

Keltz says he thought he had escaped with little more than a mild headache. Initial assessments around the base found no serious injuries or deaths from the attack. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, “All is well!”

The next day was different.

“My head kinda felt like I got hit with a truck,” Keltz told Reuters in an interview from al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar desert. “My stomach was grinding.”

Keltz, who said he had concussion symptoms for days, is among 109 soldiers diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries in the wake of last month’s attack, a figure that has steadily risen as more troops report symptoms and get medical screening.

Reuters interviewed more than a dozen officials and soldiers and spoke with brain-injury specialists to assemble the most comprehensive account so far of the nature of the soldiers’ injuries and how they sustained them.

The slowly rising casualty count underscores the difficulty in detecting and treating what has become one of the most common injuries in the U.S. military during two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. troops face roadside bombs, rockets and mortars.

More than a week after the attack, on Jan. 16, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was made aware that soldiers had suffered brain injuries from the missiles, the Pentagon said. That day, the Pentagon reported that an unspecified number of troops were treated for concussive symptoms and 11 were flown to Kuwait and Germany for higher-level care.

On Jan. 22, Trump said that he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things,” prompting criticism from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and a U.S. veterans group that the president was underplaying the casualties from the attack.

“I think it was unfortunate to use those words,” said Republican Representative Richard Hudson, who represents Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg that includes the Army’s Special Operations Command.

The White House declined to comment for this story.

A DIFFERENT CLASS OF WOUNDS

The U.S. military has long treated brain injuries as a different class of wounds that do not require rapid reporting up the chain of command, unlike incidents threatening life, limb or eyesight.

Since 2000, nearly 414,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, according to Pentagon data. The number is likely higher because the Pentagon only counts as one injury cases where a soldier suffers brain trauma in multiple incidents.

U.S. troops operating drone flights appeared to have suffered the most brain injuries during the attack on al-Asad, said Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Garland, who was on the base at the time. Many worked near the air strip, he said. Like Specialist Keltz, who was manning a guard tower, the drone pilots had been assigned to watch for a possible ground attack.

“Those drone pilots, they’re the ones that took the brunt of the TBI cases,” said Garland, who as commander of Task Force Jazeera oversees more than 400 soldiers.

The number of troops diagnosed with brain injury from last month’s attack was expected to stabilize near the current count, one U.S. official said. Less than 10 were now being monitored with possible TBI symptoms, the official said.

The total U.S. military count, however, excludes civilian contractors on the base at the time, many of whom have since departed.

Some U.S. troops also suffered from anxiety-related symptoms after the attack, including sleeplessness and, in at least one case, a sustained high heart rate, according to interviews with soldiers and officials. However, they could not provide a specific number.

The Pentagon categorizes brain injuries as mild, moderate, severe or penetrating. The vast majority of injuries are classified as mild, as were all of the injuries reported from al-Asad.

STANDING GUARD

Garland, the commander, said he was taken aback when he learned of U.S. intelligence indicating that Iranian missiles would strike within hours. He immediately found a base map and started sizing up the best options to shelter his troops.

He recalled old bunkers on the base built during the era of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2003. But the bunkers wouldn’t hold everyone. Some would need to disperse, taking cover in armored vehicles driven away from targets.

Others in Garland’s unit — including Specialist Keltz –would need to stand guard to watch for additional attacks beyond the expected missiles.

Keltz said he and a fellow soldier were already manning a tower when First Sergeant Larry Jackson came to them, explaining the intelligence and giving them their orders.

“What I need you boys to do is to lay down on the ground when the impacts happen – and then I need you to jump right back up and man those guns,” Jackson said in an interview, recounting his instructions to Keltz and other soldiers at the base.

As the Iranian missiles streaked through the night sky toward the base, their engines glowed orange – like the ends of lit cigarettes, Garland said. The glow was all that Garland could see in the darkness before scrambling back into a bunker.

Then came the blasts. At least eleven missiles struck the base, destroying housing units made from shipping containers and other facilities.

“Every explosion I heard, I was thinking, OK, that’s a number of people that have just lost their lives,” he said.

But initial checks after the attack showed nobody was killed or obviously injured, despite massive devastation to the base. Word got back to Washington. Just before 6 a.m. in Baghdad, Trump tweeted an update: “Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!”

FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS

On the ground at al-Asad, U.S. Army Major Robert Hales, a doctor who is deployed to al-Asad, defended the initial reports of no injuries.

“Everyone here did not have any outward physical injuries,” he said in an interview. “There were no lacerations. There’s no shrapnel wounds.”

Such “silent” injuries take time to manifest, he said.

Injury figures kept climbing in the weeks after the attack. What began as at least 11 cases grew to 34 about a week later.

On Jan. 22, Trump made his controversial comment, referring to the injuries as “headaches.” The Veterans of Foreign Wars demanded an apology for Trump’s “misguided remarks”.

A week later, on Jan. 28, the toll of brain injuries climbed to 50. In early February, Reuters was the first to report that the count had surpassed 100.

The brain injuries sustained in the Iranian missile attack are fundamentally different than those that have typically resulted from past attacks, brain-trauma specialists said.

That’s because the al-Asad bombing was more intense than typical quick-hit, single-explosion attacks: The explosions came in waves and lasted more than an hour.

When a roadside bomb goes off in Afghanistan, head wounds are often visible. In insurgent bomb blasts, shrapnel or other flying debris can cause brain injuries upon impact. But the damage from large pressure waves from a major blast – like the ones at al-Asad that Specialist Keltz felt – often take more time to diagnose.

Marilyn Kraus, director of the Traumatic Brain Injury program and concussion clinic at George Washington University, said troops may minimize or underreport their symptoms initially. Others may not show symptoms until much later in part because their injuries are initially masked by the adrenaline rush that comes with combat.

“Some of these things can fall into the cracks initially,” said Kraus, who previously served as medical director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Consult Section at the Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.

In the short term, mild traumatic brain injury can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and confusion, while longer-term effects can include chronic headaches, mood changes and dizziness, Kraus said. Repeated head injuries can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a brain degeneration disorder that some researchers have linked to suicidal thoughts, substance misuse and depression, she said.

Hales, the Army doctor, cited research within the past six months showing in animal models that signs of damage to the brain can increase in the weeks after a blast. At al-Asad, soldiers started showing symptoms such as headaches or a “foggy feeling” days after the attack, Hales said. The symptoms often persisted.

“That’s the reason why you saw a huge delay” in identifying the injuries, he said. “That prompted us to re-screen pretty much the whole population of al-Asad.”

(Stewart and Ali reported from Washington. Editing by Brian Thevenot and Jason Szep)

U.S. troops describe ‘miraculous’ escape at Iraqi base attacked by Iran

By John Davison

AIN AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (Reuters) – Troops at the Iraqi air base that bore the brunt of Iran’s first direct missile attack against U.S. forces said they were shocked by its intensity and grateful to emerge unscathed.

The scale of the damage at the Ain al-Asad base showed Iran’s destructive capability at a time when U.S. officials say they are still concerned that Iran-backed groups across the region could wage attacks on the United States.

“It’s miraculous no one was hurt,” Lt Col Staci Coleman, the U.S. air force officer who runs the airfield, told reporters on Monday at the vast base deep in the western Anbar desert in Iraq, where 1,500 Americans were deployed.

“Who thinks they’re going to have ballistic missiles launched at them … and suffer no casualties?”

The Jan. 8 attack came hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the United States should expect retaliation over the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Iraq the previous week.

The killing raised fears of a new Middle East war, but the United States, Iraq and other countries with troops at the base said no one was hurt. U.S. military leaders have said that was thanks to commanders on the ground, not Tehran’s goodwill.

At one site, a cruise missile had left a large crater and incinerated living quarters made from shipping containers.

Heavy concrete blast walls were knocked over and the shipping containers were smashed and charred along with contents including bicycles, chairs and other furniture. Several soldiers said one of their number had come very close to being blown up inside a shelter behind the blast walls.

Almost a dozen missiles hit the air base, where U.S. forces carried out “scatter plans” to move soldiers and equipment to a range of fortified areas apart from one another.

The United States did not have Patriot air defenses at the base, putting the onus on local commanders to protect their troops.

“We’d got notification there could be an attack a few hours prior so had moved equipment,” said U.S. Staff Sergeant Tommie Caldwell.

‘IT’S LIKE TERROR’

Lt Col Coleman said that by 10pm all the staff she manages were ready to take cover. “People took this very seriously,” she said.

Three and a half hours later the missiles started arriving. Several soldiers said they continued for two hours.

Staff Sgt Armando Martinez, who had been out in the open to watch for casualties, said he could not believe how easily one missile leveled the concrete blast walls.

“When a rocket strikes that’s one thing; but a ballistic missile, it’s like terror,” he said.

“You see a white light like a shooting star and then a few seconds later it lands and explodes. The other day, after the attack, one colleague saw an actual shooting star and panicked.”

One missile landed on the tarmac of a parking and servicing area for Blackhawk helicopters helping to ferry equipment in the fight against Islamic State insurgents.

The helicopters had been moved but it destroyed two light hangars and badly damaged portacabins nearby.

“We must have been in the bunkers for more than five hours, maybe seven or eight,” said Kenneth Goodwin, Master Sgt in the U.S. Air Force. “They knew what they were aiming at by targeting the airfield and parking area.”

It was the latest strike against an air base that has figured prominently in high-ranking U.S. officials’ visits to Iraq.

“After these missile attacks, when we hear of possible militia rocket attacks, we tend to think, ‘Oh only rockets … that’s a change’,” Coleman said, describing the common feeling when the missile attacks were over as “sheer relief”.

On Sunday the Iraqi military said four people had been wounded in an attack on Balad air base in northern Iraq, which also houses U.S. personnel. Military sources identified the wounded as Iraqi soldiers.

(Reporting by John Davison; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by David Goodman)

Threat of Western strikes hangs over Syria, U.S., France assail Assad at U.N.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with governors and members of Congress at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Tom Perry and Michelle Nichols

BEIRUT/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States and its ally France assailed Syria’s Bashar al-Assad at the United Nations on Friday for using chemical weapons as the prospect of U.S.-led military action that could lead to confrontation with Russia hung over the Middle East.

As chemical weapons experts arrived in Syria to investigate a suspected poison gas attack by government forces, international diplomacy was in high gear to head off an escalation, though accusations flew thick and fast between Washington and its allies, and Russia, Assad’s main backer.

U.S. President Donald Trump warned on Wednesday that missiles “will be coming” in response to the toxic gas assault on April 7 that killed dozens of people in Douma, a town near Damascus which had been held by rebels until this month.

Russia says there is no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma and has warned the United States and its allies against carrying out any military strike.

While Trump himself was silent on Syria on Friday, giving no further clues on whether U.S. military action was imminent, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Washington estimated Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons at least 50 times during the seven-year-long Syrian conflict.

“Our president has not yet made a decision about possible action in Syria. But should the United States and our allies decide to act in Syria, it will be in defense of a principle on which we all agree,” Haley told the U.N. Security Council.

“All nations and all people will be harmed if we allow Assad to normalize the use of chemical weapons.”

There was no word from Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, though his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Moscow was in contact with Washington to discuss an atmosphere which he described as alarming.

“God forbid anything adventurous will be done in Syria along the lines of the Libyan and Iraqi experience,” Lavrov told a news conference, referring to past Western military interventions elsewhere in the region.

“Even non-significant incidents would lead to new waves of migrants to Europe and to other consequences, which neither we nor our European neighbors need,” Lavrov said.

Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke by phone with Putin and expressed concern about a worsening situation.

Striking a conciliatory note, Macron’s office said: “The President of the Republic called for dialogue with Russia to be maintained and stepped up to bring peace and stability back to Syria.”

But this was balanced by a warning from the French ambassador to the United Nations, Francois Delattre, who told the Security Council that the Syrian government’s decision to use chemical weapons again meant they had “reached a point of no return”.

The world must provide a “robust, united and steadfast response”, Delattre said.

Since 2015 France has carried out air strikes against Islamic State in Syria as part of allied forces linked to the U.S.-led coalition, conducting about 5 percent of total coalition air missions.

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Karen Pierce meanwhile rejected a charge by a Russian defense ministry spokesman that Britain was involved in staging a fake chemical weapons attack in Douma.

“This is grotesque, it is a blatant lie, it is the worst piece of fake news we’ve yet seen from the Russian propaganda machine,” Pierce told reporters.

AVERTING WAR – A PRIORITY

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich took an apparent swipe at Trump’s tweets. “We cannot depend on what someone on the other side of the ocean takes into his head in the morning. We cannot take such risks,” he said at a forum.

Vassily Nebenzia, Moscow’s U.N. ambassador, said he “cannot exclude” war between the United States and Russia. “The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war,” he told reporters. “We hope there will be no point of no return.”

Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, told Lebanese daily al-Joumhouria: “The conditions do not point to a total war happening … unless Trump and (Israeli leader Benjamin) Netanyahu completely lose their minds.”

U.S. allies have offered strong words of support for Washington but no clear military plans have yet emerged.

British Prime Minister Theresa May won backing from her senior ministers on Thursday to take unspecified action with the United States and France to deter further use of chemical weapons by Syria.

Some other of Trump’s European allies are anxious to avert a U.S.-Russian showdown. Apart from Macron’s phone conversation with Putin, NATO members Germany and the Netherlands have said they will not take part in any military action.

Tayyip Erdogan, president of Syria’s neighbor Turkey which is also in NATO, said on Friday he had spoken by phone with Trump and Putin and told both that increasing tension in the region was not right.

A first team of experts from the global Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has arrived in Syria, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.

The investigators, who are only mandated to determine if chemical weapons were used and not who used them, were expected to start their investigations into the Douma incident on Saturday, the Netherlands-based agency said.

In Geneva, U.N. war crimes investigators condemned on Friday the suspected use of chemical weapons in Douma and called for evidence to be preserved with a view to future prosecutions.

ASSAD TIGHTENS GRIP

Trump himself appeared on Thursday to cast doubt on at least the timing of any U.S.-led military action, tweeting: “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”

Global stock markets have had a whipsaw week, largely fueled by Trump’s tendency to change his mind over top policy issues.

The capture of Douma has clinched a major victory for Assad, crushing what was once a center of the insurgency near Damascus, and underlines his unassailable position in the war.

Assad, who is supported by Iranian-back fighters as well as the Russian air force, has cemented his control over most of the western, more heavily populated, part of the country. Rebels and jihadist insurgents are largely contained to two areas along Syria’s northern and southern borders.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Tom Perry, Ellen Francis, Maria Tsvetkova, Leigh Thomas and Ingrid melander; Writing by Richard Balmforth)

Japanese capital holds first North Korean missile attack drill

Participants run during an anti-missile evacuation drill at the Tokyo Dome City amusement park in Tokyo, Japan January 22, 2018.

TOKYO (Reuters) – Tokyo held its first missile evacuation drill on Monday with volunteers taking cover in subway stations and other underground spaces that would double as shelters for the Japanese capital in the event of a North Korean missile strike.

The choreographed evacuations at a fair ground and park ringing the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium involved around 300 volunteers.

Small groups of protesters scuffled with police as they demonstrated against what they criticized as a war game that fanned public fear.

While hope grows that North Korea’s participation in next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea may help defuse tension in the region, Japan is escalating efforts to prepare its citizens for a possible war.

Tokyo believes the threat posed by Pyongyang’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons development is deepening.

“A missile from North Korea would arrive in less than 10 minutes and the first alert would come about three minutes after launch, which gives us only around five minutes to find shelter,” Hiroyuku Suenaga, a Japanese government official, told volunteers after the Tokyo exercise.

Small Japanese towns and villages have conducted similar drills as North Korea has pushed ahead with its missile and nuclear weapons programs.

North Korea conducted its most recent and biggest nuclear bomb test in September and has tested dozens of ballistic missiles. The latest missile test in November reached an altitude of about 4,475 km (2,780 miles) and flew 950 km (590 miles), passing over Japan before splashing into waters in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Pyongyang says its weapons programs are a necessary defense against a possible U.S. invasion.

Amid public concern over the possibility of more missile launches, Japanese public broadcaster NHK issued a false launch alarm urging people to take shelter six days ago. That came days after a similar false alert caused panic across Hawaii.

“I am not that worried about North Korea, if something happened that would be frightening,” said Hidenobu Kondo, one of the volunteer evacuees. However, the 50-year-old company employee said the drill would not be of much use in the event of real attack.

“If I was at work it might be easy to evacuate, but If I was outside somewhere it would be more difficult,” Kondo said.

Japan’s defenses against a ballistic missile strike include Aegis destroyers in the Sea of Japan armed with interceptor missiles designed to destroy warheads in space. PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries represent a last line of defense against warheads that can plunge to their targets at several kilometers per second.

Japan has also decided to buy two land-based Aegis batteries and cruise missiles that could strike North Korean missile sites.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Paul Tait)

White House condemns missile attacks on Saudi by Yemen’s Houthis

White House condemns missile attacks on Saudi by Yemen's Houthis

BEIJING (Reuters) – The White House on Wednesday condemned missile attacks by Yemen’s Houthi militias on Saudi Arabia, saying they threatened the region’s security and undermined efforts to halt the conflict.

Saudi Arabia said its air defense forces intercepted a ballistic missile fired from warring Yemen over the capital Riyadh on Saturday. The rocket was brought down near King Khaled Airport on the northern outskirts of the capital.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Iran’s supply of rockets to militias in Yemen was an act of “direct military aggression” that could be an act of war.

“Houthi missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, enabled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, threaten regional security and undermine UN efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict,” the White House said in a statement as U.S. President Donald Trump began a visit to the Chinese capital.

“These missile systems were not present in Yemen before the conflict, and we call upon the United Nations to conduct a thorough examination of evidence that the Iranian regime is perpetuating the war in Yemen to advance its regional ambitions,” the statement added.

It said the United States would continue working with other “like-minded” partners to respond to such attacks and expose what it called Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.

Iran denied it was behind the missile launch. On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said missile attacks from Yemen were a reaction to what he called Saudi aggression.

In reaction to the missile, the Saudi-led coalition closed all air, land and sea ports to the impoverished country. It also intensified air strikes on areas controlled by the Houthis including the capital Sanaa.

The war has killed more than 10,000 people and triggered one of the worst man-made humanitarian disasters in recent history.

The United Nations on Tuesday called on the coalition to re-open an aid lifeline into Yemen, saying food and medicine imports were vital for 7 million people facing famine.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard, writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by William Macldan)

Japanese demand for nuclear shelters, purifiers surges as North Korea tension mounts

A North Korean navy truck carries the 'Pukkuksong' submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang,

By Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – Sales of nuclear shelters and radiation-blocking air purifiers have surged in Japan in recent weeks as North Korea has pressed ahead with missile tests in defiance of U.N. sanctions.

A small company that specializes in building nuclear shelters, generally under people’s houses, has received eight orders in April alone compared with six orders during a typical year.

The company, Oribe Seiki Seisakusho, based in Kobe, western Japan, also has sold out of 50 Swiss-made air purifiers, which are said to keep out radiation and poisonous gas, and is trying to get more, said Nobuko Oribe, the company’s director.

A purifier designed for six people sells for 620,000 yen ($5,630) and one designed for 13 people and usually installed in a family-use shelter costs 1.7 million yen ($15,440).

Concerns about a possible gas attack have grown in Japan after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a parliament session this month that North Korea may have the capacity to deliver missiles equipped with sarin nerve gas.

“It takes time and money to build a shelter. But all we hear these days, in this tense atmosphere, is that they want one now,” Oribe said. “They ask us to come right away and give them an estimate.”

Another small company, Earth Shift, based in Shizuoka prefecture, has seen a tenfold increase in inquiries and quotes for its underground shelters, Akira Shiga, a sales manager at the company said. The inquiries began gradually increasing in February and have come from all over Japan, he said.

FILE PHOTO: A soldier films North Korean soldiers, officers and high ranking officials attending a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea

FILE PHOTO: A soldier films North Korean soldiers, officers and high ranking officials attending a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country’s founding father Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/File Photo

EVACUATION DRILLS

North Korean missiles have fired with increasing frequency. Last month, three fell into waters within Japan’s exclusive economic zone, some 300-350 kilometers off the coast of northern Akita prefecture.

The Japanese government on Friday urged local governments to hold evacuation drills in case of a possible missile attack, heightening a sense of urgency among the public.

Some orders for the shelters were placed by owners of small-sized companies for their employees, and others by families, Oribe said. A nuclear shelter for up to 13 people costs about 25 million yen ($227,210) and takes about four months to build, he said.

The shelter his company offers is a reinforced, air-tight basement with an air purifier that can block radiation as well as poisonous gas. The room is designed to withstand a blast even when a Hiroshima-class nuclear bomb exploded just 660 meters away, Oribe said.

North Korea said on Sunday it was ready to sink a U.S. aircraft carrier to demonstrate its military might, in the latest sign of rising tension in the region.

The United States ordered the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to sail to waters off the Korean peninsula in response to mounting concern over the reclusive state’s nuclear and missile programmes.

In Japan’s previous experience with sarin gas in 1995, members of a doomsday cult killed 12 people and made thousands ill in attacks on Tokyo subways.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka Additional reporting by Teppei Kasai; Editing by Malcolm Foster and Bill Tarrant)

U.S. defense secretary says Syria dispersed warplanes, retains chemical weapons

Israel's President Reuven Rivlin (R) welcomes U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in Jerusalem April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Idrees Ali

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that Syria had dispersed its warplanes in recent days and that it retained chemical weapons, an issue he said would have to be taken up diplomatically.

The United States launched dozens of missiles earlier this month against a Syrian air base in response to a chemical attack that killed 90 people, including 30 children. It says the Syrian government launched the attack from the Shayrat air base.

The Pentagon has said that the strike had damaged or destroyed about 20 percent of the Syrian military’s operational aircraft.

During a press conference alongside his Israeli counterpart, Mattis was asked whether the Syrian military had moved warplanes to a Russian base in Latakia.

“They have dispersed their aircraft, no doubt. They have dispersed their aircraft in recent days,” Mattis said.

Mattis also reiterated that the United States believed Syria had retained some chemical weapons.

“The bottom line is, I can say authoritatively they have retained some (chemical weapons). It’s a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions, and it’s going to have to be taken up diplomatically,” Mattis said.

Israel’s military said on Wednesday it believes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces still possess several tonnes of chemical weapons.

A senior Israeli military officer told Israeli reporters that “a few tonnes of chemical weapons” remained in the hands of Assad’s forces, a military official told Reuters.

In a 2013 agreement brokered by Russia and the United States, Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons, a global watchdog, said sarin or a similar banned toxin was used in the April 4 strike in Syria’s Idlib province.

Mattis later met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Before the start of their talks, Netanyahu said he was optimistic about relations between the two countries under the new U.S. administration.

The two countries are working to set a more positive tone after eight years of friction under President Donald Trump’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Gareth Jones and Richard Lough)