A family of six was killed and dozens were injured in an alleged chlorine gas attack on a Syrian village late Monday, according to eyewitnesses and local medical workers.
Warf Mohammad Taleb died along with his mother Ayoush Hassan Qaq, wife Ala al-Jati, and three children after being exposed to the gas in opposition-held Sarmin, Idlib province. Dozens more were injured from gas inhalation in the attack, which a local activist and monitoring groups claim was carried out by President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Syrian officials denied responsibility, however.
Both the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and the local Sarmin coordinating committee allege that crude "barrel bombs" containing the gas had been dropped on the village by government aircraft.
The coordinating committee uploaded several videos shot from a chaotic field hospital showing patients coughing, struggling for breath, and being treated with oxygen. The videos cannot be independently verified but are consistent with other reporting of the incident.
Other footage shows the pale bodies of children reported to have been killed in the attack. A medic seen speaking in a separate video says around 70 people were injured and 10 are still in critical condition.
Local activist Ibrahim al-Idlibi told AFP that there had been two waves of barrel bomb attacks on Sarmin, and confirmed that six civilians subsequently died from suffocation after exposure to a gas as yet unidentified by local medical workers.
An Amnesty International report released Tuesday quotes a civil defense member who attempted to rescue the Talebs as describing a concentration of gas so strong that they couldn't enter the premises without a gas mask.
"The smell was horrible," the worker says in the report. "We evacuated people. We were told that a family lives in the basement. Three of us went down the stairs. I took one breath and then when I took the second my throat burned, my eyes started burning. We didn't have masks. We don't have special clothes. I couldn't proceed. I was holding my breath but couldn't hold it further. I saw a woman on the stairs. She was blue and was not breathing. We evacuated her and a minute later the next team went in and evacuated the other family. They were wearing masks, that is why they were able to go all the way down. They evacuated the father, mother and three babies. They all died."
A government military official in Damascus told AP that the claims were untrue, and instead accused opposition armed groups of responsibility.
Today, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power expressed horror at the images coming from Sarmin.
"We're looking into the reports, we've seen the videos, they are gruesome, they are devastating, these kids, its just the most heartbreaking thing you could ever see on video," she said.
There have been persistent Western accusations that Assad's forces have used chlorine gas in so-called barrel bombs, which are makeshift weapons fashioned from explosives packed into barrels, trash cans, or other metal containers then rolled out of helicopters.
Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Program Director Philip Luther said that the bombing offered more evidence of "war crimes" committed by Assad's troops. "These horrific attacks that resulted in civilians, including small children, suffering excruciating deaths, are yet more evidence that the Syrian government forces are committing war crimes with impunity. The situation in Syria must be referred to the International Criminal Court as a matter of urgency."
Chlorine, commonly used to treat water and clean clothing, is not in itself a banned substance. Instead, it is considered a "dual-use" chemical under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which Syria signed in October 2013. However its deployment as a weapon is strictly prohibited.
In December, American officials told a meeting of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) at The Hague that they believed the Syrian government had regularly used chlorine gas in such a manner in civilian areas. A May 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report concluded, based on witness interviews as well as video and picture analysis, that Assad's forces used bombs containing chlorine gas on three Syrian villages where armed rebel groups had been clashing with troops. HRW noted that fragments of chlorine canisters found at the scene indicated that they had been dropped from considerable heights — strongly suggesting that they'd been deployed from military helicopters. Opposition factions are not known to have access to aircraft.
The OPCW said in September 2014 it had "compelling confirmation" that a toxic chemical, likely pure or mixed chlorine, had been used "systematically and repeatedly" in the same part of the country. Chlorine was used in attacks on three villages, the mission concluded, after conducting dozens of interviews with victims, doctors, and eyewitnesses, as well as reviewing medical records, video, and other documentation.
The UN Security Council approved a resolution last week condemning the use of chlorine as a weapon in Syria. Russia, a key ally of Assad, agreed to the text, but made clear it doesn't believe government forces to be responsible for the incidents.
The latest reports come as the US says it is taking all possible steps to remove Assad from power and that he would never be a part of hypothetical peace talks. This clarification came after Secretary of State John Kerry apparently said in an interview broadcast Sunday that a peace process could eventually include the embattled Syrian president. His remarks proved controversial among both opposition figures and lawmakers in countries opposed to the Syrian government, including Turkey and France. Syrian state media, however, boasted that it showed Kerry was recognizing Assad as the country's legitimate leader.
Speaking Monday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Assad would absolutely not be involved. "By necessity, as we have long said, there always has been a need for representatives of the Assad regime to be a part of that process," she told reporters during a daily press briefing. "It would not be and would never be, and it wasn't what Secretary Kerry was intending to imply, that that would be Assad himself…"
Meanwhile, a separate Amnesty International report released Tuesday says Syrian government airstrikes on the city of Raqaa unlawfully killed scores of civilians in a manner that may constitute a war crime. Raqaa is a stronghold for the Islamic State militant group, but Amnesty found that a series of strikes on non-military targets, including a mosque and crowded market, between November 11 and November 29 left as many as 115 civilians dead, including 14 children.