Russia defends ally Syria from global outcry over deadly chemical attack, says air strike hit ‘terrorist warehouse’ with toxic substances

Moscow pushes back against international suspicions that the Assad regime massacred dozens and left others suffocating on the streets

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 7:46am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 April, 2017, 11:40am

Russia defended its ally Damascus on Wednesday in the face of an international outcry over a suspected chemical attack that killed scores of civilians, saying a Syrian air strike hit a “terrorist warehouse”.

The UN Security Council was to hold an emergency meeting later Wednesday on the attack, which killed at least 72 civilians, among them 20 children, in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun on Tuesday.

Watch: World anger at suspected Syria gas attack

Washington and London have pointed the finger at President Bashar al-Assad’s government for the attack, though the regime has denied any use of chemical weapons.

The incident also raised suspicions of Syrian non-compliance with a deal to destroy its chemical weapons, brokered by the US and Russia after an August 2013 sarin gas attack killed more than 1,000 people in a Damascus suburb

Moscow, which launched a military intervention in 2015 in support of Assad’s forces, said the deaths were caused when a Syrian air strike hit a “terrorist warehouse” containing “toxic substances”.

The Russian defence ministry said in a statement that the building housed “a warehouse making bombs, with toxic substances”, without saying if the strike was accidental or deliberate.

The ministry said the “arsenal of chemical weapons” was intended for fighters in Iraq, describing its information as “completely reliable and objective.”

WARNING: Story contains graphic images below

Syria’s army had earlier denied any use of chemical weapons, saying it “has never used them, any time, anywhere, and will not do so in the future.”

Its denials have done little to quiet international condemnation, with UN chief Antonio Guterres on Wednesday saying the “horrific events” showed that “war crimes are going on in Syria”.

Others have blamed Damascus more directly for the attack, including British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who said “all the evidence I have seen suggests this was the Assad regime.”

US President Donald Trump on Tuesday split the blame between Syria’s Russian-backed leader and former president Barack Obama, as the new American administration struggled to explain what it might do in response.

In a surprising statement, Trump called the assault in an opposition-held town in northern Syria “reprehensible” and one that “cannot be ignored by the civilised world”, rhetoric that harkened back to Obama’s criticism in 2013 of an earlier chemical attack ascribed to Assad’s forces. Trump said Assad was responsible for Tuesday’s deaths - yet also targeted his predecessor’s failed strategy to deter such attacks.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad personally linked to chemical weapons attacks for first time

Obama aides declined Tuesday to comment on Trump’s assignment of blame, which did not include any indication of what action, if any, Trump might take.

Asked how Trump might respond now, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday: “I’m not ready to talk about our next step but we’ll talk about that soon.”

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also pointed the finger at the regime, saying “it is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism.”

If confirmed, the attack would be among the worst incidents of chemical weapons use in Syria’s brutal civil war, which has killed over 320,000 people since it began in March 2011.

It unfolded in the early hours of Tuesday morning, with airplanes carrying out strikes that released “toxic gas” on Khan Sheikun, in the northwestern province of Idlib, according to witnesses and a monitoring group.

“We ran inside the houses and saw whole families just dead in their beds,” resident Abu Mustafa said of the attack’s aftermath.

“Children, women, old people dead in the streets.”

Witnesses claimed Sukhoi jets operated by the Russian and Syrian governments were involved. Videos from the scene showed volunteer medics using firehoses to wash the chemicals from victims’ bodies and lifeless children being piled in heaps.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said at least 160 people suffered the effects of the gas, with medical sources reporting incidents of vomiting, fainting, breathing problems and foaming at the mouth.

Medic Hazem Shehwan said he saw victims with “pinpoint pupils, convulsions, foaming at the mouth and rapid pulses”.

Medics worked frantically in the hours after the attack to treat a steady stream of patients, administering oxygen and hosing down victims to wash off chemical residue.

Even as they worked, air strikes hit a medical facility treating victims, bringing rubble down on top of medics and patients.

Air strikes hit Khan Sheikun again on Wednesday morning, the Observatory said. There were no immediate details on a toll.

Watch: medics assist victims of Syrian chemical attack

Syria officially relinquished its chemical arsenal and signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013, to avert military action after it was accused of an attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds.

But there have been repeated allegations of chemical weapons use since, with a UN-led investigation pointing the finger at the regime for at least three chlorine attacks in 2014 and 2015.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said it was “seriously concerned” by reports of Tuesday’s attack.

The UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria said it had also begun investigating the “alleged use of chemical weapons”.

Britain, France and the United States were to present a resolution to the Security Council Wednesday calling for the OPCW to quickly report findings on the attack.

But it was unclear if Russia would veto the measure, as it has often done with previous Security Council resolutions concerning Syria.

The text calls on Syria to provide flight plans, flight logs and other information on its military operations on the day of the assault.

Successive rounds of peace talks aimed at ending Syria’s civil war have failed to produce results, and Syria’s opposition warned Tuesday that the attack cast doubt on the prospects for future negotiations.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Bloomberg