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'Chemical attack' in Syria draws international outrage

UN to investigate potential war crimes after dozens were killed in Idlib attack US says 'cannot be ignored'.

respiratory problems

A suspected chemical attack in Syria has drawn international condemnation, with the United States, France and Britain all pointing the finger at President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

At least 58 people, including 11 children, were killed in the rebel-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province on Tuesday, doctors and a monitor said.

The United Nations said it would investigate the bombing raid as a possible war crime, and an emergency Security Council meeting was scheduled for Wednesday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack caused many people to choke or faint and some to foam from the mouth, citing medical sources who described the symptoms as signs that gas was used.

Local health workers said the death toll could rise and eventually reach 100. A member of the White Helmets, a rescue group that operates in rebel-held areas, said that up to 300 people had been injured.

The Syrian National Coalition, an opposition group, accused government planes of carrying out the attack, and said they used a gas similar to sarin.

Syria's military denied the accusation in a statement, saying the army "denies using any toxic or chemical agents in Khan Sheikhoun today, and it did not and never will use it anywhere".

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was "deeply disturbed" by the attack, his spokesman said, adding that the United Nations was "currently not in a position to independently verify these reports".

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 Edlib Media Centre, a pro-opposition group, posted images on Tuesday's attack that were widely shared on social media, showing people being treated by medics and what appeared to be dead people, many of them children.

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.

Russia's defence ministry denied it was responsible, telling the state-run RIA news agency that it did not carry out bombing runs in the area on Tuesday.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkey hopes the UN will punish the attack’s perpetrators in the name of humanity.

"The inhumane savagery in Idlib, Syria this morning, unfortunately, shocked all of us deeply," he said.

Britain and France also called for renewed efforts at the Security Council for those behind the use of toxic gas in the war to be held accountable.

Such attempts have been repeatedly blocked by Russia, Syria's main ally and a veto-wielding council member.

"This is clearly a war crime," British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told reporters.

"I call on the Security Council members who have previously used their vetoes to defend the indefensible to change their course."


READ MORE: Syria's civil war explained


The United States said Assad must be held accountable for chemical weapons attacks and demanded that Russia and Iran bring their ally to heel.

"While we continue to monitor the terrible situation, it is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters that President Donald Trump was "extremely alarmed" by reports of the attack, which he called "reprehensible."

French President Francois Hollande accused the Syrian government of a "massacre".

"Once again the Syrian regime will deny the evidence of its responsibility for this massacre," he said in a statement.

On three previous occasions, United Nations investigations have found the Syrian army guilty of using chemical weapons.

In a statement, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said the use of chemical weapons, as well as any deliberate targeting of medical facilities, "would amount to war crimes and serious violations of human rights law".

"It is imperative for perpetrators of such attacks to be identified and held accountable," said the independent panel led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro.

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."


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