A monitor has reported that dozens civilians were killed and hundreds injured by a “toxic gas” attack in northwestern Idlib province. The Syrian government had vowed to destroy its stock of chemical weapons.
At least 100 people, many of them children, were reportedly killed on Tuesday morning by a “toxic gas” attack in northwest Syria, a monitor said.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that an airstrike on the rebel-held town of Sheikhun was responsible for the civilian deaths.
SOHR, which relies on witness reporting from within Syria and is sometimes accused of a favorable stance towards the opposition forces, said it was trying to determine what the substance was and if it had been dropped by Syrian aircraft or planes belonging to allied Russia. Russia vehemently denied carrying out Tuesday’s attack.
The Syrian government had promised to destroy its store of chemical weapons in 2013 as part of a deal to avoid US military intervention.
But photographs collected by activists showed some of the White Helmets volunteer rescue group hosing down victims with water, and two men foaming at the mouth after the attack.
The Syrian Medical Relief Group, an international aid agency funding hospitals in Paris, said at least 400 people were injured in the attack. Many of the wounded are reportedly suffering from respiratory problems. Medical workers in the town told SOHR that victims had been brought in vomiting and fainting after the air raid, and on top of the dead there were dozens of patients suffering respiratory problems as a result.
UN rights investigators launch investigation
Idlib province, where Sheikhun is located, is controlled by the al-Qaeda affiliated Fateh al-Sham Front, formerly known as the Al Nusra Front.
Later on Tuesday, UN human rights investigators started gathering information on the alleged chemical weapons attack after the National Coalition – an opposition group uniting more moderate elements – demanded an independent investigation from the United Nations.
UN investigators also said they were probing whether a medical facility treating victims was also under siege.
“The National Coalition demands the Security Council convene an emergency session…, open an immediate investigation and take the necessary measures to ensure the officials, perpetrators and supporters are held accountable,” the group said in a statement.
UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said that “both the use of chemical weapons, as well as the deliberate targeting of medical facilities, would amount to war crimes and serious violations of human rights law,”
Leaders across the world condemned the Syrian government and its allies following reports of the attack, and called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to be held to account.
French President Francois Hollande accused the Assad regime of carrying out a “massacre.”
“Once again the Syrian regime will deny the evidence of its responsibility for this massacre,” Hollande said. “Those who support this regime can once again reflect on the enormity of their political, strategic and moral responsibility.”
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the alleged chemical attack near Idlib “bears all the hallmarks” of the Syrian government, adding that the UK government would “continue to lead international efforts to hold perpetrators to account.”
Both the UK and France have called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, which could take place as early as Tuesday. Britain’s UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft urged Russia and China not to veto any council resolution against those responsible for the attack.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that Tuesday’s attack served as a “dramatic reminder of the fact that the first priority is, as in any conflict, stopping the fighting,” adding that the Assad regime had the “primary responsibility of protecting its people and not attacking its people.”
Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, called the attack “a crime against humanity” but also criticized the West for intervening for similar attack in the past. Western nations, he said, were glad to give frequent lectures to the Middle East on human rights but “remained carefree when the red line was crossed before.”
The attack came as the European Union was preparing to hold a two-day summit on the Syrian conflict in Brussels.
After US President Donald Trump last week walked back from the demand that President Bashar al-Assad step down, EU foreign ministers have said they see no place for the strongman in Syria.
US lawmakers demands tougher Trump approach
Trump’s suggestion that removing Assad from power might no longer be the top US priority in Syria would represent quite a shift in policy for Washington in the six-year civil war.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also raised eye brows last week when he said that Assad’s fate would be “decided by the Syrian people.”
However, Tuesday’s attack could force Trump to challenge the Syrian government more forcefully.
While the White House and US congressional leaders had yet to react to the attack, Republican lawmakers urged the president to take action.
House Republican Adam Kinzinger wrote on Twitter that “Removing #Assad from power IS and MUST be a priority.”
Senator John McCain described the attacks as “butchery,” and criticized the administration’s handling of the crisis, warning that Tillerson’s words only served to encourage Assad and his allies.