UN investigators slam Syrian chemical attacks
United Nations investigators have found the Syrian regime responsible for a third attack using chemical weapons as investigations continue into atrocities committed in the country's civil war.
Bashar al-Assad's forces used helicopters to drop devices that released chlorine gas on civilians in Idlib province last year, according to a confidential report sent to the UN Security Council.
Investigators said there was "sufficient evidence" to conclude that government forces were responsible for attacks on the rebel-held village of Qmenas on March 16, 2015. The Joint Investigation Mechanism (JIM) report said a device dropped from a high altitude "hit the ground and released the toxic substance that affected the population".
Dr Muhammad al-Tanari, from a field hospital in nearby Sarmin, said at least 120 people were affected by barrel bombs with chlorine. In an account given to the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria, he said casualties started arriving 10 minutes after a helicopter passed overhead.
He reported symptoms including vomiting, weakness, coughing, shortness of breath and eye and skin irritation consistent with chlorine gas exposure.
"The second attack killed six people from one family, when a barrel fell directly on their house," he added. "They had gone down to the basement to seek shelter from the impact of the explosion, as they usually did, which led to their immediate suffocation as the gas, being heavier than air, slipped down to their shelter."
The use of chlorine as a weapon is prohibited under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria joined in 2013 while pledging to destroy its stockpiles.
Britain and the US were considering an invasion to oust al-Assad at this time, following an alleged sarin attack that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta the previous month.
Numerous chemical attacks using chlorine, sarin and mustard gas have been reported in the five-year conflict, most commonly blamed on the Syrian army. Investigators also found Isil used sulphur mustard gas in Marea, near Turkey, in August last year.
The report is expected to be discussed by the UN Security Council on Thursday. The US, Britain and France want to impose sanctions on Syria for using chemical weapons but the Syrian government has denied all allegations and Russia, its closest ally, has dismissed previous evidence as inconclusive.
Moscow is expected to oppose any new sanctions against Syria. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "There are just two options: Assad sitting in Damascus or the Nusra Front sitting in Damascus."
He was referring to the al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda's branch in Syria that renamed itself Fatah al-Sham Front earlier this year.
The statement came as a pause in air strikes on rebel-held areas of Aleppo entered its third day, with the UN calling for the evacuation of wounded civilians and fighters from besieged areas.