Suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun kills more than 90, dozens injured

A suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun, near Idlib, has killed more than 90 people on Tuesday, while dozens were injured.

Airstrikes on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun began just after daybreak, delivering an unidentified chemical agent that killed at least 90 people and filled clinics across the area with patients foaming at the mouth or struggling to breathe.

Three doctors said in interviews that the symptoms they saw were far more serious than they would expect from chlorine, which Syrian government forces have used as a chemical weapon in the past. The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons expressed “serious concern” and said it was investigating.

Images from the area showed the bodies of at least a dozen men, women and children splayed across the ground between two houses. It was not possible to independently verify the reports, but video footage showed lifeless bodies wrapped in blankets and packed on the back of a truck. The youngest were wearing diapers.

In another video, several children were seen slumped on hospital beds, apparently unresponsive to the medics and chaos around them. Syrian government warplanes in recent months have launched heavy attacks across northern Idlib province, where hundreds of thousands of civilians — many having fled other battle zones — are squeezed together among much of what remains of the armed opposition to Assad.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry denied involvement in Tuesday’s attack, saying the government was committed to its obligations under the international Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria joined the convention in 2013 after launching sarin attacks on several Damascus neighborhoods — strikes that killed hundreds of civilians and pushed the United States to the brink of military intervention.

The attack came as European diplomats gathered in Brussels for a flagship conference aimed at pledging billions of dollars for Syria’s reconstruction, six years into a civil conflict that has shattered much of the country and prompted refugees to pour out across the Middle East and Europe.

Photographs of lifeless bodies in Khan Sheikhoun were passed from phone to phone in the Brussels conference hall, attendees said, a stark reminder of the limitations of European power in a war now heavily driven by Iranian and Russian influence.

Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. [photo by Ammar Abdullah/Reuters]

Emergency U.N. Security Council meeting

The U.N. Security Council has scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday morning on the suspected chemical attack in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, which opposition activists say has killed dozens of people. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the current council president, made the announcement Tuesday in response to a request from Britain and France for an emergency council session. She said council members have seen reports “of the terrible chemical weapons attack in Syria.” Haley said the council will get a briefing at an open meeting at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on Wednesday “and we are hoping to get as much information on the Syrian attack as we can.”

White House condemns attack

The White House has condemned what it describes as a “heinous” chemical attack against civilians by the Syrian government. Spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday’s attack in the Syrian province of Idlib is “reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world.” But Spicer says the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government are a consequence of the Obama administration’s “weakness and irresolution” in addressing the Syrian civil war. Spicer says that President Barack Obama said he would draw a “red line” at chemical attacks, “then did nothing.” Spicer would not say whether the White House believes Russia played a role in the attack, saying President Donald Trump has been briefed. He says Trump is “extremely alarmed” by this “intolerable act.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Russia and Iran bear “great moral responsibility” for deaths from an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. Tillerson called on Russia and Iran to use their influence over Syrian President Bashar Assad to prevent future chemical weapons attacks. He said they bear moral responsibility because they have declared themselves to be the guarantors of a ceasefire they helped broker in Astana, Kazakhstan. He said in a statement that Iran and Russia shouldn’t have any illusions about Assad or his intentions. Tillerson says anyone using chemical weapons to attack his own people must be held accountable for a “fundamental disregard for human decency.” He also said the chemical weapons attack makes clear that Assad operates “with brutal, unabashed barbarism” and that Syria needs a “genuine ceasefire” and that anyone supporting armed combatants there must help ensure compliance.

A senior U.S. State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity said that if a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria is what it appears to be, it is “clearly a war crime.” The official said both the United States and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are currently gathering information about the attack.

The attack comes as the U.S. has been softening its stance on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s future and leaving open the possibility the U.S. could cooperate with Assad’s government on fighting the Islamic State group. But the U.S. official says that’s “highly unlikely.” He says the U.S. isn’t currently focused on that possibility. He says the Syrian government’s behavior would have to change before the U.S. would seriously consider that step.

U.N. says can’t verify use of chemical agents in attack

The United Nations says it isn’t in a position to independently verify reports of a chemical attack in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province but Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “deeply disturbed” at the incident. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the U.N. chief extends “his heartfelt condolences to victims of the incident and their families.” He pointed to the OPCW, the international chemical weapons watchdog, which announced that it has started gathering information to determine if chemical weapons were used. Dujarric said Gutteres recalled the U.N. Security Council determination that the use of chemical weapons threatens international peace and security, and if confirmed “constitutes a serious violation of international law.”

Russia confirms attack was carried out by Syrian airforce planes

A Russian official confirmed on Wednesday morning that the Khan Sheikhoun attack was carried out by the Syrian Arab Airforce but wouldn’t confirm use of chemical agents.

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Russian fleet departs from Syrian shores: Russia’s Defense Ministry

The Russian General Staff announced today that its ‘aircraft-carrier strike group’ will leave Syria soon, as “group has fulfilled its tasks”, the Russian Defense Ministry and the chief of the Russian General Staff announced on Friday.

Archive photo of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov
Archive photo of the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov

Aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov first to leave

The chief of Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov said that the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, the battlecruiser Pyotr Veliky and their escort ships will be the first to leave Syria.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said that a “unified air defense system has been created in Syria based on S-300 and S-400 missile systems to ensure reliable protection for [Russia’s] assets on [Syrian] land and at sea. The spokesman added that during the “two months of the Russian aircraft carrier group’s participation [in Syria] saw 420 combat sorties and destruction of 1,252 terrorist targets”.

Update 1 – 6/1/2016 15:00 GMT | Russian aircraft carrier group leaves Syrian shores

The Russian aircraft carrier group has departed from Syrian shores and has set sail for the harbor of Severomosk, said Russian admiral Popov and added that the group “will remain in high readiness for possible return to Syrian shores”. Duma’s defense committee deputy chairman said on Saturday that the aircraft carrier group “may return to Mediterranean Sea if necessary”.

Source: Interfax/Syria & Iraq News

More than 25 dead in airstrike on eastern Aleppo market

An airstrike hit the biggest market on the rebel-held side of Syria’s Aleppo on Wednesday, killing at least 25 people and leveling buildings as rescuers were still sifting through the rubble from air raids that killed dozens the day before.

Activists said the early afternoon strike destroyed several shops in the besieged eastern part of the city, which has been the target of a massive Russian-backed Syrian offensive since the collapse of a cease-fire last month. The latest strikes have shattered a relative three-day lull in the area, where hospitals, underground shelters and buildings had been targeted for weeks.

On Tuesday, Russian or Syrian aircraft bombed several neighborhoods, killing at least 41 people, including five children, according to the Syrian Civil Defense, a group of volunteer first responders, and the activist-run Aleppo Media Center.

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The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of contacts in Syria, gave lower tolls for the attacks but said they were likely to rise. Varying reports of casualties are common in the chaotic aftermath of attacks in Syria. Dr. Farida, a gynecologist whose clinic is in the market, said it was not clear what the aircraft were targeting. “Many stores totally disappeared. I can’t find a trace of a mini-market I used to buy things from,” she said, asking that her last name not be published because of security concerns. She said at least five buildings have been destroyed. “The destruction is horrible,” she said. “The rubble has piled up and the roads are cut.”

The Observatory said Wednesday that at least 358 civilians have been killed in eastern Aleppo since a US and Russian-brokered truce collapsed on Sept. 19. The UN says over 100 children have been killed in the campaign, which has also included a limited ground offensive. Syria Civil Defense workers pulled at least one boy alive from under the rubble Tuesday, amid cheers from onlookers. The 13-year-old boy, Jamil Habboush, emerged covered in dust and dazed from the flattened building, grapping his rescuer tightly. His mother survived but remains in critical condition, said Ibrahim al-Haj, a member of the Syrian Civil Defense, which is also known as the White Helmets. The boy had lost his father and brother in previous bombings, according to al-Haj.

The UN Security Council is deadlocked over how to respond to the Aleppo crisis. The US and Russia have failed to reach an agreement on renewing the short-lived cease-fire. International aid groups and UN agencies have appealed for a halt to the violence to allow aid into the besieged territory. No assistance has entered Aleppo since July, while hospitals, medical facilities and rescue vehicles have all come under attack.

Sources: Associated Press/Syria & Iraq News

Suspected chlorine gas attack on Eastern Aleppo causes deaths, injuries: hospital, rescuers

At least four people died and many suffered breathing difficulties when a gas, believed to be chlorine, was dropped alongside barrel bombs on a neighborhood of the Syrian city of Aleppo on Wednesday, a hospital and a civil defense group told Reuters.

Hamza Khatib, the manager of Al Quds hospital in Aleppo, told a Reuters photographer the hospital had recorded four deaths from gas poisoning and 55 injuries. Seven people were still receiving hospital treatment. Khatib said he was preserving pieces of patients clothing and fragments from the barrel bombs as evidence for analysis.

Syria Civil Defence, a Syrian rescue service operating in rebel-held territory, told Reuters it had recorded three deaths and 22 injuries after a barrel containing a gas suspected of being chlorine fell on the Zubdiya neighborhood of rebel-held Aleppo. The group, which describes itself as a neutral band of search and rescue volunteers, said it could not independently verify the nature of the gas.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said helicopters dropped explosive barrels on the neighborhoods of Seif al Dawla and Zubdiya, leading to the death of a woman and her child from suffocation.

There have been unconfirmed reports among activists and residents of chlorine gas falling on rebel-held east Aleppo since the insurgent offensive. The Aleppo Media Centre, an online opposition news portal for the city, posted a video that it said was of victims of the gas attack: a child and adults wearing breathing apparatus. Two men interviewed said barrel bombs were dropped and there was a strong smell of gas. People then began to suffer breathing and eye problems.

A child is being treated in al-Quds hospital in Eastern Aleppo [10/8/2016, photo by @MahmoudRashwani]
A child is being treated in al-Quds hospital in Eastern Aleppo [10/8/2016, photo by @MahmoudRashwani]

Source: Reuters