04/04/2017, 18.35
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Chemical attack on rebel-held town near Idlib kills scores, including several children

The death toll stands at 58, 11 children included, but others sources put the number higher with many more wounded. In the afternoon, rockets hit clinics. Syrian government and Russia deny any involvement.

London (AsiaNews/Agencies) – At least 58 people have been killed and dozens wounded in a suspected chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town some 50 kilometres from Idlib in north-western Syria some, a monitoring group said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has reported that Syrian or Russian warplanes carried out the strike. A Syrian military source denied the government had used any such weapons. Russia's defence ministry said it had not carried out any air strikes in the vicinity.

Later, aircraft fired rockets at local clinics treating survivors, medics and activists said.

Hussein Kayal, a photographer for the pro-opposition Edlib Media Center (EMC), told the Associated Press that he was awoken by the sound of an explosion at about 06:30 (03:30 GMT).

When he reached the scene, there was no smell, he said. He found people lying on the ground, unable to move and with constricted pupils.

Mohammed Rasoul, the head of a charity ambulance service in Idlib, said that the situation is very serious and that his medics had found people, many of them children, choking in the street.

The SOHR put the death toll at 58, including 11 children, but Mr Rasoul reported 67 killed and 300 wounded. The pro-opposition Step news agency reported a hundred deaths.

The EMC, which said it had stopped counting the victims because there were so many, posted photos showing what appeared to be at least seven dead children in the back of a pick-up truck. There were no visible traumatic injuries on their bodies. It said it believes Sarin was used.

Sarin is highly toxic nerve agent that is considered 20 times as deadly as cyanide. It inhibits the action of an enzyme, which deactivates signals that cause human nerve cells to fire. This blockage pushes nerves into a continual "on" state. The heart and other muscles – including those involved in breathing – spasm.

An AFP news agency journalist saw a young girl, a woman and two elderly people dead at a hospital, all with foam still visible around their mouths. The journalist also reported that the same facility was hit by a rocket on Tuesday afternoon, bringing down rubble on top of doctors treating the wounded.

Syrian authorities repeatedly denied using chemical weapons. In August 2013, the Syrian government was accused of using sarin gas in an attack that killed more than 500 people in a rebel-held area just outside Damascus.

On the occasion too, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected accusations, blaming instead the rebels. Eventually, he accepted that Syria’s chemical arsenal be destroyed.

Since then, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has repeatedly documented the use of toxic chemicals in attacks in Syria. In January 2016, tests on blood samples from victims showed that they had been exposed to sarin or substances similar to it.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government, but a Syrian military source told the Reuters news agency that it "does not and has not" used chemical weapons.

For its part, the opposition National Coalition has accused the government of being behind what it called a "horrible crime". It has also called on the UN Security Council to open an immediate investigation and hold the perpetrators accountable. Meanwhile, France has called for an emergency Security Council meeting.

If confirmed, this would be one of the deadliest chemical attack in Syria since the civil war began six years ago.

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