A day after a suspected chemical attack in rebel-held northwest Syria that killed scores of civilians, Moscow on Wednesday said that a Syrian air strike has hit a “terrorist warehouse” containing “toxic substances”. The suspected chemical attack has been strongly condemned by several countries and the UN.
The death toll from the suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held Syrian town has risen to 72, and shockingly 20 of them children, a monitoring group claimed.
If confirmed, it would be one of the worst chemical attacks since Syria’s civil war began six years ago.
“There were also 17 women among the dead and the death toll could rise further because there are people missing,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that the attack also left many more sick and gasping, causing widespread outrage.
Meanwhile, Russia has come to the defence of its ally Bashar-al-Assad’s regime.
“According to the objective data of the Russian airspace control, Syrian aviation struck a large terrorist warehouse near Khan Sheikhun,” the Russian defence ministry said in a statement.
Whereas in Syria, the opposition blamed President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, saying the attack cast doubt on the future of peace talks. The army, however, denied any involvement in a statement blaming “terrorist groups” for using “chemical and toxic substances”.
The incident brought swift international condemnation, with the United States, France and Britain all pointing the finger at Assad. The White House condemned what it called a “reprehensible” attack by Assad’s forces.
UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said the attack was believed to be chemical and launched from the air, adding that there should be a “clear identification of responsibilities and accountability”.
The Observatory said the attack on a residential part of Khan Sheikhun came early on Tuesday, when a warplane carried out strikes that released “toxic gas”.
As well as those killed, at least 160 people were injured, it said, and many died even after arriving at medical facilities. The monitor could not confirm the nature of the gas, but said the attack was probably carried out by government warplanes.
“We heard strikes this morning… We ran inside the houses and saw whole families just dead in their beds. Children, women, old people dead in the streets,” resident Abu Mustafa said.
Russia’s military, which has been fighting in support of Assad’s government since September 2015, denied carrying out any strikes near the town.
Hours after the initial attack, air strikes also hit a hospital in the town where doctors were treating victims, according to the news reports in the press agency AFP, whose correspondent is reported a “rubble on top of medics as they worked”. He also saw a young girl, a woman and two elderly people dead at a hospital.
Khan Sheikhun is in Idlib province, which is largely controlled by an alliance of rebels including former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front.
The province is regularly targeted in government and Russian air strikes, and has also been hit by the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State group, usually targeting jihadists.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it was “seriously concerned” by reports of the attack, while, the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria said it had begun investigating the “alleged use of chemical weapons”.
(With inputs from Agencies)