Tuesday 24 April 2018

Missiles strike Syrian air base – reports

US officials denied the country was behind the offensive.

The report comes after an in the eastern suburbs of Damascus (AP)
The report comes after an in the eastern suburbs of Damascus (AP)

By Philip Issa, Associated Press

Missiles have struck an air base in central Syria, its state-run news agency reported.

Although the agency said it was likely “an American aggression”, US officials said the US had not launched air strikes on Syria.

The missile attack followed a suspected poison gas attack Saturday on the last remaining foothold for the Syrian opposition in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

At least 40 people were killed, including families found in their homes and shelters, opposition activists and local rescuers said.

SANA reported that the missile attack on the T4 military air base in Homs province resulted in a number of casualties.

Earlier, President Donald Trump had promised a “big price to pay” for the suspected chemical attack. After the air strikes were reported, however, Pentagon spokesman Christopher Sherwood said in a statement, “At this time, the Department of Defence is not conducting air strikes in Syria.”

The US launched several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base last year after a chemical attack in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun killed dozens of people. Israel has also struck inside Syria in recent years.

The suspected poison gas attack Saturday on the besieged town of Douma came almost exactly a year after the US missile attack prompted by the Khan Sheikhoun deaths.

In response to the reports from Douma, Mr Trump on Sunday blamed Syrian government forces for what he called a “mindless CHEMICAL attack.” In a series of tweets, Mr Trump held Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chief sponsors, responsible.

The Syrian government denied the allegations, calling them fabrications.

First responders entering apartments in Douma late on Saturday said they found bodies collapsed on floors, some foaming at the mouth. The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence rescue organisation said the victims appeared to have suffocated.

They did not identify the substance used, but the civil defence organisation, also known as the White Helmets, and the Syrian American Medical Society, a medical relief organisation, said survivors treated at clinics smelled strongly of chlorine.

Those reports could not be independently verified because of a government blockade around the town.

Hours after the attack, the Army of Islam rebel group agreed to surrender the town and evacuate their fighters to rebel-held northern Syria, Syrian state media reported. The group also agreed to give up its prisoners, a key demand of the government.

The government agreed to halt its assault after three days of indiscriminate air and ground attacks.

“There’s nothing left for civilians and fighters. We don’t have anything to stand fast,” said Haitham Bakkar, an opposition activist inside the town, told the Associated Press.

“People now are going out in the streets looking for their loved ones in the rubble,” Mr Bakkar said. “And we don’t have any space left to bury them.”

More than 100 buses entered the town on Sunday night to transport fighters and their families to Jarablus, a town under the shared control of rebels and Turkey, said Syrian state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV.

The preparations follow a pattern of evacuations around the capital and other major Syrian cities as the government reasserts its control after seven years of war.

Human rights groups and United Nations officials say the tactic amounts to forced displacement, a war crime. The UN Security Council planned to hold an emergency meeting Monday to discuss the attack.

The Army of Islam could not be immediately reached for comment.

In his tweets on Sunday, Mr Trump called Assad an “animal” and delivered a rare personal criticism of Russian president Vladimir Putin for supporting him. A top White House aide, asked about the possibility of another US missile strike, said, “I wouldn’t take anything off the table.”

The developments come as Mr Trump has declared his intent to withdraw US troops from Syria in the coming months despite resistance from many of his advisers.

Mr Bakkar said several bombs laced with chemicals landed in Douma on Saturday night. Another activist, Bilal Abou Salah, said a large, yellow cylinder smashed through the roof of an apartment building and came to rest on the third floor and started to discharge gas.

Press Association

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