Syrians trade accusations of chemical attack

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria’s government and rebels traded accusations of a chemical attack Tuesday on a northern village near Aleppo. However a U.S. official said there was no evidence of any such attack.

The regime, whose allegation was backed by ally Russia, said 31 people were killed, including 21 civilians and 10 soldiers.

The reports could not be independently verified because of tight media restrictions, particularly in government-controlled areas that are virtually shut to all foreign media and outside observers.

But if confirmed, it would be the first known use of chemical weapons in the 2-year-old civil war and a glimpse of one of the nightmare scenarios for this conflict.

One of the international community’s top concerns since fighting began is that Syria’s vast arsenal of chemical weapons could be used by one side or the other or could fall into the hands of foreign jihadi fighters among the rebels or the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is allied with the regime.

The accusations emerged only a few hours after the opposition to President Bashar Assad elected a prime minister to head an interim government that would rule areas seized by rebel forces from the regime.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad said at least 31 people were killed. State-run news agency SANA said more than 100 others were wounded, some of them in critical condition. SANA published pictures showing casualties, including children, on stretchers in what appears to be a hospital ward. None showed signs of physical injuries.

Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi called it the “first act” of the newly announced opposition interim government.

Rebels quickly denied the report and accused regime forces of firing the chemical weapon.

The head of Syria’s main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said the group was still investigating the alleged chemical attack near Aleppo.

“Everyone who used it, we are against him, whatever he is,” Mouaz al-Khatib told reporters in English in Istanbul. “We are against killing civilians using chemical weapons, but let us wait some time to have accurate information.”

The regime has not said that rebels have been able to seize any chemical weapons “so we assume that the opposition does not possess such weapons,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst with the Gulf Research center in Geneva.

“I would not rule out that the military would use chemical weapons and try to pin it on the rebels,” Alani said.

“The only strategy that this regime has been left with is character assassination of the opposition and blame the rebels for all the bad things that are happening in the country.”

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