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(In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, posted on April 18, 2014, an anti-Bashar Assad activist group, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, two women and a young girl are treated by a medic in Kfar Zeita, a rebel-held village in Hama province some 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Damascus. Syrian opposition activists and other witnesses tell The Associated Press) that Syrian government forces have attacked rebel-held areas with poisonous chlorine gas in recent months. They say the attacks left scores of men, women and children coughing, choking and gasping for breath. The reports have been denied by the Syrian government and have yet to be confirmed by any foreign country or international organization. But if true, they highlight the limitations of the global effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network)
Syrian groups accuse president of chlorine gas attacks
Civil war » If true, it would be violation of chemical-weapons treaty signed by Assad government.
First Published Apr 23 2014 07:21 pm • Last Updated Apr 23 2014 07:23 pm

Beirut • Syrian government forces have attacked rebel-held areas with poisonous chlorine gas in recent weeks and months, leaving men, women and children coughing, choking and gasping for breath, according to Associated Press interviews with more than a dozen activists, medics and residents on the opposition side.

Syria flatly denied the allegations, and they have yet to be confirmed by any foreign country or international organization. But if true, they highlight the limitations of the global effort to rid President Bashar Assad’s government of its chemical weapons.

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Witnesses near Damascus and in a central rebel-held village told the AP of dozens of cases of choking, fainting and other afflictions from inhaling fumes that some said were yellowish and smelled like chlorine cleanser. Some of those interviewed said they believe the gas was responsible for at least two deaths.

They said the fumes came from hand grenades and helicopter-dropped "barrel bombs," which are crude containers packed with explosives and shrapnel.

Activists have posted videos similar, though on a far smaller scale, to those from last August’s chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people and nearly triggered U.S. airstrikes against Syria. The new footage depicts pale-faced men, women and children coughing and gasping at field hospitals.

The U.N. Security Council called for an investigation Wednesday. Council members expressed "grave concern" over the allegations, said Nigeria’s U.N. Ambassador U. Joy Ogwu, council president.

It’s an accusation that carries high stakes, and the Syrian opposition has an interest in pushing such claims in hopes of spurring the world to take stern action against Assad, who has been locked in a civil war for three years and faces a Sunday deadline for handing over all his chemical weapons for destruction.

Chlorine is a potentially lethal chemical with a multitude of ordinary civilian uses, including laundry bleach and swimming-pool disinfectant. In high concentrations, it can attack the lungs and asphyxiate victims.

While chlorine was first deployed on the battlefield in World War I, it is no longer officially considered a warfare agent and is not among the chemicals declared by Syria. It is not as effective at killing as sarin — the nerve agent that was apparently used last summer — and experts say it is difficult to achieve high concentrations of chlorine by dropping it from the air.

Still, any toxic chemical is considered to be a chemical weapon if used for military purposes. Consequently, Syria’s use of chlorine-filled bombs, if confirmed, would be a violation of the chemical weapons treaty that Assad’s government signed last year as part of a deal to hand over its stockpile.


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On Wednesday, Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said his government categorically denied the use of chlorine gas. Ja’afari further disputed that chlorine gas could be categorized as a chemical weapon, saying "it is a mundane substance used for bleaching clothes in the laundry or disinfecting swimming pools."

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that officials were still trying to determine what happened. On Sunday, French President Francois Hollande told Europe 1 radio station there were "elements" suggesting recent use of chemical weapons, but no proof.

Both countries bluntly accused the Syrian government of using sarin against civilian areas in the August attack near Damascus.

"I can understand the reluctance to undertake any firm action right now because the big priority is to get the other chemicals out of the country," said Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent chemical weapons consultant and disarmament expert. "Once these are out of the country, we can probably see a completely different dynamic with regards to Syria emerge. People will be less deferential to the Assad regime."

Zanders, who remains skeptical about the claims emerging from Syria pending more proof, said nobody wanted to upset the Assad government to the point that it would cease all cooperation, particularly with the relationship between the U.S. and Russia strained because of the Ukraine crisis.

Russia was a main sponsor of the deal to strip Syria of its chemical weapons. Syria has shipped out 86 percent of its declared stockpile so far, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the watchdog agency overseeing the process.

Syrian opposition forces have accused the government of using small amounts of poisonous gas over the past few months in several incidents affecting more than 100 people.

The Violation Documentation Center, a Syrian group that tracks human rights violations, issued a detailed report last week in which it claimed to have documented the use of chemicals in 15 instances since the beginning of the year in suburbs of Damascus, in Hama and in Idlib. The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said it identified at least nine cases in recent months where the government used poison gas.

The most serious episode appears to have occurred in Kfar Zeita, a rebel-held village in Hama province some 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Damascus.

Three activists and a medic gave similar accounts of how several bombs containing a chlorine-smelling gas were dropped on the village of some 20,000 people starting on April 11, triggering severe coughing, muscle contractions and choking.

"It smelt like eggs, then after a while it became like chlorine," Muaz Abu Mahdi, a Kfar Zeita activist who filmed a falling bomb, said in a Skype interview. He said it killed a girl and an elderly man.

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