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19 Mar, 2013 09:50

At least 25 dead in Syrian 'chemical' attack as govt and rebels trade blame (PHOTOS)

At least 25 dead in Syrian 'chemical' attack as govt and rebels trade blame (PHOTOS)

Syrian rebels have used a rocket chemical warhead in Aleppo, killing 25 people and injuring 86, says Syria's Information Minister. The attack escalates the Syrian conflict and brings the violence to a new level, believe Russian diplomats.

The Syrian government's SANA news agency reported that terrorists fired a rocket containing chemical substances in the Khan al-Assal area of rural Aleppo and confirmed that at least 25 people, most of them civilians, were killed.

The World Health Organization has pledged on Tuesday to send medical aid and supplies to Aleppo the following day, but said it could not ascertain the use of chemical weapons. The organization’s spokesman told Reuters that on Wednesday the “WHO [would] send medical supplies (for trauma cases) to Aleppo from its pre-positioned stocks in Tartous.”

A photographer working for Reuters in Aleppo reported that the witnesses of the attack complained of a strong smell of chlorine near the epicenter of the attack. Reportedly, people had breathing problems and some of them died of suffocation.

"They said that people were suffocating in the streets and the air smelt strongly of chlorine,” the photographer said, stressing that most of the victims he saw while visiting the University of Aleppo hospital and the al-Rajaa hospital were women and children.

"People were dying in the streets and in their houses," he said by phone.

The UN Secretary-General and the director general of the independent Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) have both expressed deep concern at the prospect of chemical warfare in the country. Later, Ban Ki-moon’s office has issued a statement saying that

“the Secretary-General remains convinced that the use of chemical weapons by any party under any circumstances would constitute an outrageous crime”. A statement published on the Russian Foreign Ministry website says that “According to information coming from Damascus, the armed opposition used chemical weapons early in the morning on March 19 in the province of Aleppo” .

“This is an extremely alarming and dangerous development of events in the Syrian crisis,” believe Russian diplomats.

The Foreign Ministry stressed it is “seriously concerned” about the fact that WMD has fallen into the hands of the armed militia.

“This aggravates the situation in Syria and brings unfolding confrontation in this country to a new level,” the ministry states.

The Obama administration announced it is looking carefully at the chemical warfare allegation coming from Syria, but instantly called into question the possible use of such weapons by opposition groups.

"We are looking carefully at the information as it comes in," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says the watchdog so far does not have independent confirmation of chemical weapons use in Syria.

“I don't think we know more than you do at the moment," maintained at a seminar in Vienna the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) Ahmet Uzumcu.

"Of course we have seen those reports and we are closely monitoring the situation," he said.

Syria’s Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi stated Turkey and Qatar bore "legal, moral and political responsibility" for the "dangerous escalation" in violence because of their support of rebel groups fighting to oust President Bashar Assad. He decried the incident as the interim government’s “first act.”

The Turkish government has immediately rejected Syria’s accusations of taking part in the alleged chemical attack in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo.

"This is a baseless accusation. The Syrian government has accused Turkey in the past as well," an unnamed Turkish official told Reuters.

Syrian rebel commander Qassim Saadeddine immediately denied the accusations and claimed the Syrian regime had launched Scud missiles containing chemical agents on Khan al-Assal.

Photo by Aleppo University Hospital

Opposition group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 26 people killed following the attack, saying that 16 died on the scene, while the other 10 died in hospital. A spokesperson for the organization said it was unclear how many civilians perished in the attack.

The British envoy to the UN told reporters on his way to the Security Council that the reports on chemical weapon attack in Syria “haven't yet been fully verified."

“But clearly if chemical weapons were used then that would be abhorrent and it would require a serious response from the international community," Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant told reporters.

Syria's Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi said on Tuesday the country's armed forces would never use internationally banned chemical weapons.

“The Syrian army leadership has stressed this before and we say it again, if we had chemical weapons we would never use them due to moral, humanitarian and political reasons," Zoabi said at a media conference.

"Our armed forces absolutely could not use, not now, nor at any time, nor in the past, any weapon banned by international law,” he stressed.

Photo by Aleppo University Hospital

Fears that Syria’s chemical weapons could fall into militant hands have been a source of constant concern for the international community over the past few months. The US and the UN have repeatedly warned President Bashar Assad’s government against deploying its own chemical arms stockpile.

Damascus maintains that it would never use such weapons against its own people, but would consider their deployment if threatened by outside forces.

Reports that Syrian rebels had seized control of a number of chemical weapons depots in the Aleppo province emerged on Sunday.

"Opposition fighters gained control over weapons and ammunition stores in the village of Khan Toman in southern Aleppo province on Saturday after fierce fighting that went on for more than three days," an anonymous military source told AFP. Reports of the weapons seizure came after days of brutal clashes between opposition and government forces.

Photo by Aleppo University Hospital

The source said the rebels only managed to steal a few crates containing ammunition, as a large part of the weapons stockpile had been transferred out of the facility. Activists disputed this, maintaining that rebels had taken control of “huge reserves.” A video posted online showed fighters looking over crates of weapons and ammunition, and claimed the attack was mounted by opposition group the Martyrs of Syria.

UK-based opposition group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the attack, but did not mention chemical weapons among the arms that were reportedly seized by the rebels.

Photo by Aleppo University Hospital

Photo by Aleppo University Hospital

Photo by Aleppo University Hospital

Photo by Aleppo University Hospital