Monday 20 January 2020

Suspected chlorine gas attack on rebel-controlled Aleppo

Four dead and many injured after observers say gas dropped on city

Children flash victory signs as they play in Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate. Photo: Reuters
Children flash victory signs as they play in Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate. Photo: Reuters

David Blair

At least four people died and many suffered breathing difficulties when a gas, believed to be chlorine, was dropped alongside barrel bombs on a neighbourhood of the Syrian city of Aleppo on Wednesday, a hospital and a civil defence group told Reuters.

Hamza Khatib, the manager of Al Quds hospital in Aleppo, said the hospital had recorded four deaths from gas poisoning and 55 injuries. Seven people were still receiving hospital treatment.

President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Photo: AP
President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Photo: AP

Mr Khatib said he was preserving pieces of patients' clothing and fragments from the barrel bombs as evidence for analysis.

Syria Civil Defence, a Syrian rescue service operating in rebel-held territory, said that it had recorded three deaths and 22 injuries after a barrel containing a gas suspected of being chlorine fell on the Zubdiya neighbourhood of rebel-held Aleppo.

The group, which describes itself as a neutral band of search and rescue volunteers, said it could not independently verify the nature of the gas.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said helicopters dropped explosive barrels on the neighbourhoods of Seif al Dawla and Zubdiya, leading to the death of a woman and her child from suffocation.

The northern city of Aleppo, Syria's most populous before the war, is split into rebel- and government-held districts.

Capturing the whole city would be a major prize for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's five-year-old conflict.

A fierce battle for control of the city broke out on Friday when rebels staged a major assault to break through a month-long government siege of the city's rebel-held east, where about 250,000 people are thought to be living.

Fighters managed to pierce the ring of government-controlled territory, but a safe corridor for civilians and aid has not yet been established.

Russia's defence ministry said it would hold fire around Syria's ravaged city of Aleppo for three hours each day, starting yesterday, to allow humanitarian aid in, an initiative the UN said is insufficient to meet the city's needs. The pause would take place daily from 0700 GMT to 1000 GMT, although it was not clear how many days it would continue.

Shortly after Moscow's announcement, the United Nations' top aid official said that halting fire for three hours a day would not be enough to ensure that civilians' humanitarian needs are met.

"To meet that capacity of need, you need two lanes and you need to have about 48 hours to get sufficient trucks in," Stephen O'Brien, UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, told reporters.

Up to two million people in Aleppo have gone without running water for the past four days, UN agencies said.

There have been unconfirmed reports among activists and residents of chlorine gas falling on rebel-held east Aleppo since the insurgent offensive.

The Aleppo Media Centre, an online opposition news portal for the city, posted a video of a child and adults wearing breathing apparatus, who it said were victims of the gas attack. Two men interviewed said barrel bombs were dropped and there was a strong smell of gas. People then began to suffer breathing and eye problems.

Government and opposition forces have both denied using chemical weapons during Syria's conflict. Western powers say the government has been responsible for chlorine and other chemical attacks. The government and Russia have accused rebels of using poison gas.

UN investigators established that sarin gas was used in Eastern Ghouta in 2013. The US accused Damascus of that attack, which it estimates killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. Damascus denied responsibility, and blamed rebels.

Later that year the UN and the Syrian government agreed to destroy the state's declared stockpile of chemical weapons, a process completed in January.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed in late 2015 that sulphur mustard, commonly known as mustard gas, had been used for the first time in the conflict, without saying which party in the many-sided conflict it thought had used it.

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