At least 60 people have been killed in northern Syria after being exposed to a toxic gas that survivors said was dropped from warplanes, an attack that sparked comparisons to the most infamous act of the country’s six-year war.
At least another 100 people were being treated in hospitals in Idlib province, where the strike took place at dawn. Several dozen others were transferred to Turkey, some in critical condition.
Condemnation mounted as the US, Britain and EU blamed president Bashar al-Assad’s government for the carnage, which occurred hours before the start of an EU-convened conference of 60 countries about the Syrian situation.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer described the carnage as “reprehensible” and directly blamed the Syrian leadership. But he also laid some of the responsibility on Barack Obama, saying: “These heinous actions by the Bashar Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”
However, critics believe the Russian-backed Assad has been emboldened by the Trump administration’s change of stance on his future. The strike came days after US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said the US was no longer prioritising Assad’s removal and Trump’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, made similar comments on the previous day.
UK prime minister Theresa May said she was appalled by reports of the attack and called for an investigation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
“I’m very clear that there can be no future for Assad in a stable Syria which is representative of all the Syrian people. I call on all the third parties involved to ensure that we have a transition away from Assad. We cannot allow this suffering to continue,” she said.
The Syrian military said it “categorically denied” responsibility. Russia, which has heavily backed the Syrian regime, said its planes were not operating near Idlib.
Hours after the attack, a hospital treating the injured was also hit. Images taken inside the clinic appeared to depict the blast as it happened.
Photographs and videos taken at the scene and in evacuation areas nearby showed rows of small, lifeless children, some with foam visible near their mouths.
Save the Children said at least 11 children were among the casualties.
Jerry Smith, the chief of a UN team that investigated a mass attack on the rebel-held Ghouta area of Damascus four years ago, said: “This absolutely reeks of 2013 all over again.”
In that attack using the banned nerve agent sarin, more than 1300 people were killed. The UN said the perpetrators probably had access to the Syrian military’s stockpile of sarin, as well as the expertise to use it.
Syria was supposed to have surrendered its sarin supplies by early 2014. However, suspicions have remained that a portion of the stockpile was not declared to inspectors.
Tuesday’s attack took place in Khan Sheikhun, where there are thousands of refugees from the nearby province of Hama who have fled recent fighting.
The town is also on a crossroads between Hama and Idlib and is considered vital to any regime offensive towards the northern city of Idlib.
“In this most recent attack, dozens of children suffocated to death while they slept,” said Ahmad Tarakji, the head of the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports hospitals in opposition-controlled areas in Syria.
“This should strike at the very core of our humanity. How much longer will the world fail to respond to these heinous crimes?”
The society said its doctors had determined that the symptoms of the patients were consistent with exposure to organic phosphorus compounds such as the nerve agent sarin, which is banned by the chemical weapons convention.
Smith said: “If you look at the footage itself, the victims don’t have any physical trauma injuries. There is foaming and pinpointed pupils, in particular.
“This appears to be some kind of organo-phosphate poison. In theory, a nerve agent.”
“Everyone is horrified and the children are in total shock,” said Mohammad Hassoun, a spokesman for civil defence rescue workers in the nearby town of Sarmin, which received 14 of the wounded.
Few hospitals in Idlib have the capacity to deal with the symptoms of chemical attacks due to the repeated bombing of medical facilities by forces loyal to the government and lack sufficient oxygen tanks to treat victims.
The attack will refocus attention on the failure of the international community to prevent the worst abuses in Syria’s war, and casts doubt on a signature achievement of Obama’s government, which negotiated the presumed destruction of Assad’s chemical arsenal in 2013.