Suspected chemical attacks killed at least 100 people in Syria's rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib on Tuesday and left another 400 suffering from respiratory problems, a Syria medical relief group said.
The death toll is likely to rise, according to the Union of Medical Care Organizations, a coalition of international aid agencies that funds hospitals in Syria and which is partly based in Paris.
The group said the village of Khan Sheikhoun to the south of Idlib had initially been hit before strikes on the White Helmets emergency services centre in Khan Sheikhoun and the Al-Rahme hospital.
Union of Medical Care OrganizationsWe have seen more than 40 strikes since 06h30. The toll continues to increase as do the strikes in the Idlib region as well as non-chemical attacks in Hama.
The attack caused many people to choke or faint, and some had foam coming out of their mouths, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, citing medical sources who described it as a sign of a gas attack.
The attack was believed to be carried out by Syrian government jets. However a Syrian military source strongly denied that the Army had used any such weapons.
Syrian Military Denies Use of Chemical Weapons
Activists in northern Syria circulated pictures on social media showing a reported victim with foam around his mouth, and rescue workers hosing down almost naked children squirming on the floor.
The Syrian military source denied allegations that government forces had used chemical weapons, dismissing the accounts as rebel propaganda.
The army “has not and does not use them, not in the past and not in the future, because it does not have them in the first place,” the source said.
A joint inquiry for the United Nations and the global chemical weapons watchdog has previously accused government forces of toxic gas attacks.
Damascus has repeatedly denied using such weapons during the six-year war, which has killed hundreds of thousands and created the world’s worst refugee crisis.
Warplanes continued to pound the town after the attack, including near a medical point where victims were being treated, the Observatory said.
Most of the town's streets had become empty, a witness said
The Syrian conflict pits President Bashar al-Assad’s government, helped by Russia and Iranian-backed militias, against a wide array of rebel groups, including some supported by Turkey, the United States, and Gulf monarchies
Syrian and Russian air strikes have pounded various parts of Idlib, according to the Observatory, despite a ceasefire that Turkey and Russia brokered in December.
The province contains the largest populated area controlled by rebels – both nationalist Free Syrian Army groups and Islamist factions, including the formerly Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.
Idlib’s population has ballooned, with thousands of fighters and civilians shuttled out of Aleppo city and areas around Damascus that the government has retaken in recent months.
US air strikes since January have also hit several areas in the rural province where jihadists have a powerful presence.
Putin and Erdogan Discuss Attack
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the attack, Turkish presidential sources said.
A statement attributed to presidential sources said:
President Erdogan touched on the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Idlib. President Erdogan said such inhumane attacks are unacceptable.
They said the two leaders had also emphasised the importance of maintaining the ongoing ceasefire in Syria.
France Wants UN Security Council Meeting Over Attack
France's Foreign Minister on Tuesday called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council after the suspected chemical attack.
Jean-Marc Ayrault said in a statementA new and particularly serious chemical attack took place this morning in Idlib province. The first information suggests a large number of victims, including children. I condemn this disgusting act. In the face of such serious actions that threaten international security, I ask for everyone not to shirk their responsibilities. With this in mind, I ask for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.
Ahead of a meeting in Brussels to discuss aid for Syria, Ayrault said Europe could not play a role in the country's reconstruction without a credible transition.