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Syria chemical attack: Russia explanation rejected

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic details that some readers may find disturbing.

(CNN) — Russian claims that a Syrian airstrike on a “terrorist” ammunition depot caused the deaths of at least 70 people have been rejected, as condemnation mounts over what appears to be a targeted chemical attack.

At least 10 children died in Tuesday’s attack on a rebel-held town in Idlib province, and dozens of people were treated for symptoms of chemical poisoning, including foaming at the mouth and suffocation.

Activists said the Syrian regime dropped a chemical bomb and was responsible for the killings.

If the incident is confirmed to be a chemical weapons attack, it would be one of the deadliest of its kind since the Syrian war began six years ago.

The British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, said all evidence suggested that the Assad regime was behind a “barbaric act.”

Syria denies the accusations and Russia says it had no warplanes in the vicinity.

Key developments

The attack coincided with a two-day meeting in Brussels on Syria’s future. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says Syrian regime likely behind attacks. Medical experts say attack appears the result of a nerve agent like sarin gas. UN will hold a Security Council emergency meeting later Wednesday. US Sen. John McCain called for President Trump to send strong signal to Assad.

The Russian defense ministry claimed on its Facebook page that a Syrian airstrike hit “workshops, which produced chemical warfare munitions” in the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun.

It said that “terrorists” had been transporting the chemical munitions from its largest arsenal to Iraq.

But a chemical weapons expert, Col. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, told the BBC’s Radio 4 that all signs showed the chemical used was sarin gas and that Russia’s versions of events was “completely unsustainable.”

“I think this is pretty fanciful and no doubt the Russians trying to protect their allies. Axiomatically, if you blow up sarin you destroy it,” he said.

Hours after the attack, several people were injured when an airstrike hit near a hospital in the same town, where victims from the earlier attack were being treated, the Aleppo Media center activist group reported.

The Syrian Civil defense rescue group, known as the White Helmets, said the hospital was knocked out of service.

The World Health Organization said some victims showed symptoms consistent with exposure to a category of chemicals that includes nerve agents.

Speaking at a high-level meeting in Brussels on the future of Syria, the UK’s Johnson pointed the finger firmly at the Syrian regime.

“All the evidence I have seen suggests that it was the Assad regime who did it, in full knowledge they were using illegal weapons in a barbaric attack on their own people,” Johnson said.

“We must accept the paradox of this meeting today. We are all here together trying to assemble a vast …. sticking plaster for Syria when there are still governments here supporting the Assad regime, which is inflicting those wounds and inflicting them with weapons that were banned internationally a century ago.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons after several attacks and consistently blames “terrorist” groups when chemical attacks are reported.

But many of these attacks are delivered through airstrikes, and no rebel or terrorist group in Syria is believed to have the capacity to carry out aerial bombardments in Syria.

A UN investigation in August last year found that chemical weapons had been used in Syria, both by the national air force and ISIS militants. It found two instances where regime forces had used chlorine as a chemical weapon, and one where ISIS had used mustard gas between 2014 and 2015.

‘Atrocious things to see’

Eyewitnesses said the attack’s aftermath was nightmarish and unlike anything that they had previously seen.

Feras al-Jundi, a physician who was an early responder in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib told CNN that, upon entering the hospital where many victims were taken, “there were many, many atrocious things to see.”

He described seeing whole families who had died, corpses of those who had perished instantly in the attack, and also the dying breaths of those who the medical teams were unable to save.

“I have never in my life seen anything like that,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

“The view was heartbreaking. It makes you (cry) blood.”

He added he didn’t see anyone who looked like a combatant among the dead.

UN emergency meeting

At the meeting in Brussels, the United States, Britain and France circulated a resolution to be presented at an emergency session at the United Nations Security Council later Wednesday condemning the attack.

If the resolution goes to a vote, it is likely to be blocked by Russia. Russia has used its veto power as a permanent member of the Security Council at least seven times on Syrian resolutions.

Delegates at the conference in Brussels, including UN Secretary General António Guterres, said there was an urgent need to find a political solution in Syria.

“The images we have seen yesterday from Syria remind us all that here we have a responsibility to unite for real with a serious engagement the international community, the regional players, but also the Syrian parties to make peace,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

But US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has previously said that Assad’s ouster was not a priority for President Donald Trump’s administration.

“Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No,” she said last week.

Feras, the doctor who witnessed the aftermath of the attack, expressed deep frustration with the international community for failing to hold the Syrian regime to account for its atrocities.

“I feel frustrated, because of the international community and the UN that have not forced the regime to abide by the Security Council resolution but … has been watching and doing nothing, which has allowed the regime to keep bombing the people with cluster bombs, scud missiles and now gas.”

The Syrian Coalition, an umbrella opposition group, compared the suspected chemical attack with one in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 “that the international community allowed to pass without accountability or punishment.”

A UN report found that the nerve agent sarin gas had been used to kill civilians in that attack, in which activists say around 1,4000 people were killed.