Syria chemical weapons attack toll rises to 70 as Russian narrative is dismissed
Updated: September 01, 2017 05:57AM UTC
Martin Chulov and Kareem Shaheen
Date: Thursday, April 06, 2017
Weapons expert says Russian claim that airstrike hit ‘terrorist warehouse’ in Idlib province is fanciful
WARNING: Some readers may find the images in this article distressing
At least 70 people have been killed in northern Syria after being exposed to a toxic gas that survivors said was dropped from warplanes, an attack that sparked comparisons to the most infamous act of the country’s six-year war.
At least another 100 people were being treated in hospitals in Idlib province where the strike took place at dawn on Tuesday. Several dozen others were transferred to Turkey, some in critical condition.
Condemnation mounted throughout Tuesday as the US, Britain and EU blamed the Syrian government for the carnage, hours before the start of a donor conference on Syria in Brussels.
Donald Trump denounced the carnage as a “heinous” act that “cannot be ignored by the civilised world”. But he also laid some of the responsibility on Barack Obama, saying in a statement that the attack was “a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution”.
Theresa May said she was appalled by reports of the attack and called for an investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. “I’m very clear that there can be no future for Assad in a stable Syria which is representative of all the Syrian people and I call on all the third parties involved to ensure that we have a transition away from Assad. We cannot allow this suffering to continue,” she said.
UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the latest death toll in Khan Sheikhoun at 72 by Wednesday morning, including 20 children.
The Syrian military said it “categorically denied” responsibility. Russia, which has heavily backed the Syrian regime, said its planes were not operating near Idlib. Early on Wednesday, the Russian defence ministry claimed a Syrian airstrike had hit a “terrorist warehouse” containing an arsenal of “toxic substances” destined for fighters in Iraq. The ministry did not state if the attack was deliberate.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Hamish de Bretton Gordon, director of Doctors Under Fire and former commanding officer of the UK Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Regiment, said this claim was “completely untrue”.
“No I think this [claim] is pretty fanciful, no doubt the Russians trying to protect their allies,” he said. “Axiomatically, if you blow up sarin, you destroy it.”
“It’s very clear it’s a sarin attack,” he added. “The view that it’s an al-Qaida or rebel stockpile of sarin that’s been blown up in an explosion, I think is completely unsustainable and completely untrue.”
Hours after the attack, a hospital treating the injured was also hit. Images taken inside the clinic appeared to depict the blast as it happened. Photographs and videos taken at the scene and in evacuation areas nearby showed rows of small, lifeless children, some with foam visible near their mouths.
Save the Children said at least 11 children were among the casualties.
Jerry Smith, the operations chief of the UN-led team that supervised the removal of Syria’s sarin stockpiles following the gas attack on the rebel-held Ghouta area of Damascus four years ago, said: “This absolutely reeks of 2013 all over again.” In that attack, more than 1,300 people were killed. The UN said the perpetrators probably had access to the stockpile of sarin held by the Syrian military at the time, as well as the expertise to use it.