Syrian forces reportedly carried out an air strike laced with chlorine gas against rebel fighters over the weekend, drawing an outcry from international observers and a rebuke from Washington on Monday.
Aid workers on the ground reported Sunday that civilians had suffered chlorine gas poisoning during an attack on the rebel-held town of Saraqeb in Idlib province. Opposition fighters claimed the gas came from a bomb dropped by a Syrian government helicopter, reports the Associated Press.
The Syrian Civil Defense, a local search-and-rescue group, said three of its rescuers and six others people were injured by the gas. Other medical personnel working for the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations told the BBC that people taken to local hospitals after the attack smelt of chlorine and had breathing problems and irritation in their eyes.
In a statement Monday night, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert noted that the reports marked the sixth time in the past 30 days that local observers have reported chemical weapons use by Syrian government forces. The Trump administration is “gravely concerned” about continuing chemical attacks, she said.
“We implore the international community to speak with one voice, taking every opportunity to publicly pressure the Assad regime, and its supporters, to cease its use of chemical weapons and hold those responsible accountable for these brutal attacks,” Nauert said.
Thus far, Washington has not considered military action in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chlorine, but Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said last week that a retaliatory strike would be an option if Assad again uses the nerve agent sarin. President Donald Trump ordered a cruise missile strike on a Syrian military installation in response to an April 2017 sarin attack, which killed more than 100 people.
The latest reported chemical attack came amid an onslaught of airstrikes by Syrian and Russian warplanes against rebel forces in Idlib, one of the few remaining rebel strongholds in Syria. The intense bombing appears to be a response to the downing of a Russian fighter plane over Idlib on Saturday, when al-Qaeda linked militants reportedly shot down an Su-25 jet and killed the pilot after he parachuted to the ground.
At least 20 people were reportedly killed in conventional Syrian and Russian air raids elsewhere in Idlib, according to the Syrian Civil defense. In rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, a region in suburban Damascus, government strikes left another 24 people dead.
On Tuesday, the United Nations called for a ceasefire to begin humanitarian aid deliveries and evacuate the sick and wounded. But Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the aid Iranian-backed militias and the Russian air force, appears to be pressing his advantage in a final effort to retake the remaining territory held by the opposition in western Syria.
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