World

SARAQEB – A Syrian rescue service operating in rebel-held territory claimed on Tuesday that containers of toxic gas had been dropped from a helicopter overnight over a town close to where a Russian military helicopter had been shot down hours earlier.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) accused President Bashar al-Assad of being behind the attack. Assad has denied previous accusations of using chemical weapons.

A spokesman for the Syria Civil Defense said 33 people, mostly women and children, were affected by the gas, which they suspect was chlorine, in the area Saraqeb that falls under the rebel-held Idlib province.

The group, which describes itself as a neutral band of search and rescue volunteers, posted a video on YouTube apparently showing a number of men struggling to breathe and being given oxygen masks by people in civil defense uniforms.

“Medium-sized barrels fell containing toxic gases. The Syrian Civil Defense was not able to determine the type of the gas,” said the spokesman.

Later, state news agency SANA said rebels had fired rockets armed with toxic gas on the government-held old quarter of Aleppo city, killing five people and causing eight people to experience breathing difficulties. It gave no further details. Rebels have also denied previous accusations of using chemical weapons.

The SNC said of the reported use of poison gas in Saraqeb: “After shelling, besieging and killing civilians and perpetrating war crimes on them, the Assad regime has resorted once again, and in breach of UN resolutions 2118 and 2235, to using chemical substances and toxic gases.

“The daily reality confirms that all the international agreements and previous security council decisions, be they about chemical weapons or otherwise, are meaningless for the Assad regime.”

The Civil Defence spokesman said it was the second time Saraqeb had been hit by toxic gas. The group has recorded around nine suspected chlorine gas incidents across Idlib province since the conflict began, he said.

The US State Department said it was looking into the reported use of chemical weapons in Saraqeb.

“I’m not in a position to confirm the veracity of (the reports),” said spokesman John Kirby. “Certainly, if it’s true, it would be extremely serious.”

Monitors at the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence on all sides in the civil war, said barrel bombs fell on Saraqeb late on Monday, wounding a large number of citizens.

Earlier, Russia’s defense ministry said a Russian helicopter was shot down near Saraqeb during the day on Monday, killing all five people on board, in the biggest officially acknowledged loss of life for Russian forces since they started operations in Syria.

The helicopter came down roughly mid-way between Aleppo and Russia’s main air base at Hmeimim in the western province of Latakia, near the Mediterranean coast.

Russian air power began supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad late last year, an intervention which tipped the balance of the war in Assad’s favor and eroded the gains rebels had made that year.

So far, no group has claimed responsibility for downing the Mi-8 military transport helicopter.