Syria: Russia slammed after accusing opposition of “alleged chemical attack”

Syria: More than 60 civilians killed in new chemical massacre by Assad regime
A man carries the body of a child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

Russia was slammed by the global powers after it said that the chemical attack in Syria’s Idlib, in which more than 70 civilians were killed, was due to an explosion of ammunition warehouse belonging to the opposition and not a result of air strikes by Assad regime.

More than 60 civilians were killed in Syria in a new chemical attack carried out by Assad regime’s air force on the rebel-held Idlib province, doctors and monitoring groups have said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack caused many people to choke or faint, and some had foam coming from their mouths, citing medical sources who described the symptoms as possible signs of a gas attack. All the children were under the age of eight.

The Edlib Media Centre (EMC), a pro-opposition group, posted images that were widely shared on social media, showing people being treated by medics and what appeared to be dead bodies, many of them children.

“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.

Khan Sheikhun houses thousands of refugees from the nearby province of Hama who have fled the fighting there.

Locals said the attack began in the early morning when they heard planes in the sky followed by a series of loud explosions after which people very quickly began to show symptoms. They said they could not identify the planes. Both Syrian and Russian jets have bombed the area before.

Opposition activists and the AFP news agency, citing one of its journalists on the scene, later said a rocket had slammed into a hospital where the victims were being treated, bringing rubble down on medics as they struggled to deal with victims.

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.

This attack is the deadliest chemical attack in Syria since sarin gas killed hundreds of civilians in the rebel-held Ghouta area near the capital in August 2013. Western states said the Assad regime was responsible for the 2013 attack but it denied the charge.

The casualties have been distributed across a wide range of hospitals in Idlib, with some sent north towards Turkey. There were reports that casualties driven to the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish border were experiencing difficulties in entering the country for emergency relief.

“The total number of wounded is incredible, so far it’s over 200,” said Mohammad, a doctor at another hospital in Idlib.

“We received over 20 victims and most of them are children, and two of them in the ICU are extremely critical. There are a lot of injured and most of these who were near the epicentre of the attack are either dead or in intensive care.

“The families are in a terrible state because they expect the victims to die.”

Mohammad said the victims he had seen had constricted irises, low oxygen and poor blood pressure and were drifting in and out of consciousness. Many were on respirators.

Russia blames the rebels

Moscow offered an alternative explanation that would shield Assad: that the poison gas belonged to rebels and had leaked from a weapons depot hit by Assad regime air force.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that “Syrian aircraft have conducted an airstrike near the town of Khan Shaykhun in Syria’s Idlib province on the warehouse of terrorists’ ammunition and the mass of military equipment, where chemical weapons’ ammunition had also been stored and delivered to Iraq.”

According to Konashenkov, “on Tuesday “from 11.30 to 12.30, local time, [8.30 to 9.30 GMT] Syrian aircraft conducted an airstrike in the eastern outskirts of Khan Shaykhun on a large warehouse of ammunition of terrorists and the mass of military equipment”.

Konashenkov said that “from this warehouse, chemical weapons’ ammunition was delivered to Iraq by militants.”

Konashenkov added that “there were workshops for manufacturing bombs, stuffed with poisonous substances, on the territory of this warehouse,” adding that “these munitions with toxic substances were also used by militants in Syria’s Aleppo.”

The command of Assad regime’s army rejected “accusations of using chemical weapons” in Idlib province and placed responsibility for that on “militants and their patrons.”

The army command and the Armed Forces categorically deny the use of any chemical weapons in the town of Khan Shaykhun in the suburb of Idlib today,” according to an Assad Armed Forces’ command statement.

“The armed terrorist groups regularly blame the Syrian Army of using chemical weapons against members of this group, as well as against civilians, every time they fail to reach their objectives. And they do everything to justify their defeats on the ground to their financial patrons,” the statement added.

Supporting Assad’s war on terrorism

In addition, the Kremlin said that Russia will not abandon Assad in the face of the international conspiracy on him and will keep supporting “his war on terrorism” even if Moscow risks deteriorating relations with the US.

“Russia and its Armed Forces continue the operation to support the anti-terrorist operation to liberate the country carried out by the Syrian Arab Republic’s army,” Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman said.

When asked to comment on Western states’ accusations blaming the Syrian president for the attack, Peskov said that he has “nothing to add to the facts voiced by the Russian Defense Ministry.”

“As for Kremlin’s plans, the plan is to continue the consistent line of the decisive fight against terrorism, which the Russian president has been conducting for years. We have repeatedly said that we lack international cooperation, and that happens not due to our fault. But despite this, Russia is determined to continue its efforts to combat terrorism,” Peskov added.

Slamming Russia’s allegations

Western countries, including the United States, blamed Assad’s armed forces for the worst chemical attack in Syria for more than four years.

U.S. intelligence officials, based on a preliminary assessment, said the deaths were most likely caused by sarin nerve gas dropped by Syrian aircraft on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday. A senior state department official said Washington had not yet ascertained it was sarin.

A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russian explanation was not credible. “We don’t believe it,” the official said.

France’s Ambassador to the UN Francois Delattre refuted arguments made by Russia and Assad regime.

“There was no fire, even though such a strike [on an alleged chemical warehouse] would have caused a fire, and the consequences would have been much more serious for the civilian population,” he said.

UK Ambassador the UN Matthew Rycroft said the attack “bears all the hallmarks fo the Assad regime”.

“There’s only one air force that has used such weapons in Syria,” he said.

In addition, the German newspaper SPIEGEL ONLINE rejected the Russian claims calling them “a lie”

“This is a lie: eyewitnesses report that the attack occurred around 6:30 am local time. The first news from the news agencies ran just before 9 o’clock in Central European summer time, that is, around 10 o’clock in the Syrian period. Already at this time it was said that the victims showed symptoms of a poison gas attack. Video recordings of victims with dyspnoea and convulsions were already circulating on the Internet,” Spiegel reported.

“The time given by the Russian government can’t be true. The time window fits more closely with the second attack wave on the 90,000-inhabitant city, where, among other things, a hospital was hit,” the report added.

The Syrian crisis began as a peaceful demonstration against the injustice in Syria. Assad regime used to fire power and violence against the civilians and led to armed resistance. 450.000 Syrians lost their lives in the past five years according to UN estimates, and more than 12 million have lost their homes.