Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

Confusion over Syrian 'gas attack'

An American-educated IT manager has been elected head of an interim government in areas seized by Syrian revolutionaries (AP)

Syria's government and rebels have accused each other of a poison gas attack on a village near Aleppo. The reports were further confused after US intelligence sources said they could find no evidence of chemical weapons being used at all in the area.

The regime, whose claim was backed by ally Russia, said 25 people were killed. If confirmed, it would be the first known use of chemical weapons in the two-year-old civil war and a glimpse of one of the nightmare scenarios for the conflict.

One of the international community's top concerns since fighting began is that Syria's vast arsenal of chemical weapons could be used by one side or the other or could fall into the hands of foreign jihadist fighters among the rebels or the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is allied with the regime.

The accusations emerged only a few hours after the opposition to president Bashar Assad elected a prime minister to head an interim government that would rule areas seized by rebel forces from the regime. The Syrian regime said at least 25 people were killed and 86 wounded, some in critical condition, in the missile attack on the village of Khan al-Assal.

State-run news agency SANA published pictures showing casualties, including children, on stretchers in what appears to be a hospital ward. Information minister Omran al-Zoubi called it the "first act" of the newly announced opposition interim government.

Rebels quickly denied the report and accused regime forces of firing the chemical weapon. But one US source said there was no evidence that either side used chemical weapons, adding that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons also reported no independent information of their use.

The head of Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said the group was still investigating the alleged attack.

Syria's policy has been not to confirm or deny if it has chemical weapons. But in July, a foreign ministry spokesman told said Syria would only use chemical or biological weapons in case of foreign attack, not against its own people. The ministry then tried to blur the issue, saying it had never acknowledged having such weapons.

But the regime is believed to possess nerve agents as well as mustard gas. It also possesses Scud missiles capable of delivering them, and some activists said Tuesday's attack was with a Scud missile.

The regime claimed the missile containing "poisonous gases" was fired from Nairab district in Aleppo into Khan al-Assal. The reported attack was in an area just west of the city of Aleppo that had seen fierce fighting for weeks before rebels took over a sprawling government complex there last month.

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