Syria says rebels using chemical weapons, opposition denies
DAMASCUS / ANKARA
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a Syrian victim who suffered an alleged chemical attack at Khan al-Assal village according to SANA, receives treatment by doctors, at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday March 19, 2013. AP Photo/SANASyria's government on Tuesday accused rebel forces of using chemical weapons for the first time, but the opposition denied the claim, saying instead that government forces might have used banned weapons, AFP has reported.
"Terrorists fired rockets containing chemical materials on Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province," the state news agency SANA and Syrian state television said.
Syria's Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi called the attack a "dangerous escalation," saying that 16 people were killed and 86 injured in the incident.
"The international community and the states that arm, finance and shelter the terrorists should (take note) of the crime committed today in which terrorists used a weapon that is prohibited by international law," he said.
He said countries that backed the rebels, including Turkey and Qatar "bear the legal, moral and human responsibility for the crime that left 16 dead and 86 injured, both civilians and soldiers," Zohbi added.
Turkey rejects Syrian accusation over possible chemical attack
A Turkish government official rejected an accusation from Syria on Tuesday that Turkey bore responsibility for a possible chemical attack in the northern province of Aleppo.
"This is a baseless accusation, the Syrian government has accused Turkey in the past as well," the official told Reuters.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi said earlier that Turkey and Qatar, which have supported rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad, bore "legal, moral and political responsibility" for the attack, state television reported.
US says 'no evidence' Syria rebels used chemical weapons
The United States said Tuesday it had seen "no evidence" that Syrian rebels have used chemical weapons and warned it would be "totally unacceptable" for the regime in Damascus to use such arms, AFP has reported.
Responding to claims by the Syrian government and its ally Russia, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington has "no evidence to substantiate the charge that the opposition has used chemical weapons." The Syrian government claimed that 25 people were killed in a chemical weapons attack by rebels in Aleppo, which the opposition denied, saying the regime might have used the banned weapons.
Carney reiterated President Barack Obama's longstanding warning that if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons "there will be consequences and they will be held accountable." "It is important that as fighting in Syria intensifies and the regime becomes more desperate, that the United States and the international community make absolutely clear to Assad that the use of chemical weapons would be totally unacceptable," he said.
Opposition denies chemical weapon claims
A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army in Istanbul denied rebel forces had used chemical weapons, blaming President Bashar al-Assad's regime for a deadly rocket attack that caused "breathing problems", AFP has reported.
"We understand the army targeted Khan al-Assal (in Aleppo province) using a long-range missile, and our initial information says it may have contained chemical weapons," Louay Muqdad told AFP. "There are many casualties and many injured have breathing problems," he said in Istanbul, where Syria's opposition has gathered to pick a rebel prime minister.
"We have neither long-range missiles nor chemical weapons. And if we did, we wouldn't use them against a rebel target," said Muqdad.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog, confirmed that a ground-to-ground missile had been fired at a Syrian army position in Khan al-Assal, but there was no information on whether it contained chemical material.
The group said the incident had killed 16 soldiers and 10 civilians.
"I'm not able to confirm if the missile contained chemical materials or not," the group's director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
International community concerned
The international community has expressed repeated concern over the possibility that Assad's regime would use its chemical weapons against rebel forces, and there are also fears the stocks could fall into the hands of militants if the regime loses control over them, according to AFP.
Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, which dates back to the 1970s, is the biggest in the Middle East but its precise scope remains unclear according to analysts, and the regime has not acknowledged having the arms.
The country has hundreds of tons of various chemical agents, including sarin and VX nerve agents, as well as older blistering agents such as mustard gas, dispersed in dozens of manufacturing and storage sites, experts say.
But it remains unclear if the chemical weapons are mounted and ready to be launched on Scud missiles, if the chemical agents are maintained effectively, and whether the regime is able to replenish its chemical stocks.
UK says Syria chemical weapons use would need "serious response"
Britain said on Tuesday it was aware of media reports about a chemical weapons attack in Syria, adding that the use or proliferation of chemical weapons there would demand a serious response from the international community, Reuters has reported.
"The UK is clear that the use or proliferation of chemical weapons would demand a serious response from the international community and force us to revisit our approach so far," a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.
Damascus has said it might use its chemical weapons if attacked by outsiders, although not against its own people.
No independent information on Syria chemical arms use: Watchdog
The head of an international anti-chemical weapons body said on Tuesday he had no independent information about any use of such arms in Syria, as claimed by the Syrian government and rebels, Reuters has reported.
"I don't think we know more than you do at the moment," Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told a seminar in Vienna. "Of course we have seen those reports and we are closely monitoring the situation," he said.
Syria's government and rebels accused each other of launching a deadly chemical attack near the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday in what would, if confirmed, be the first use of such weapons in the two-year-old conflict.