CBSN

Deaths after alleged chlorine gas attack on civilians

Last Updated Sep 7, 2016 3:44 PM EDT

BEIRUT -- An official in Syria’s rebel-held Aleppo said Wednesday that at least two people died from a suspected chlorine attack reported a day earlier.

Mohammed Abu Jaafar, head of the local forensic department in rebel-held Aleppo, said 29-year old Mohammed Afifa died overnight of heart failure and acute respiratory distress caused by inhalation of toxic gas. A 13-year-old girl also died from further complications Wednesday. 

Hamza al-Khatib, who heads an Aleppo medical center, said Afifa had been in intensive care following the suspected chlorine attack.

Activists and rescuers said at least 70 people were treated for breathing difficulties after government helicopters dropped the suspected chlorine cylinders on al-Sukkari neighborhood.

The report could not be independently verified and it was not clear how it was determined that chlorine gas was released.

The Syrian government denied dropping chlorine in Aleppo on Tuesday, according the al Jazeera television network.

Accusations involving use of chlorine and other poisonous gases are not uncommon in Syria’s civil war, and both sides have repeatedly denied using them while blaming the other for using it as a weapon of war. Last month, there were at least two reports of suspected chlorine attacks in Aleppo also, while the Syrian government also blamed the opposition for using the gas.

In Tuesday’s attack, a medical report from one of the hospitals in the besieged eastern rebel-held part of Aleppo was shared with journalists via text messages. It said at least 71 persons, including 37 children and 10 women, were treated for breathing difficulties, dry cough, and that their clothes smelled of chlorine. The report said 10 of the patients are in critical care, including a pregnant woman.

Videos posted online by activist groups showed children and adults with breathing difficulties receiving treatment in local clinics. The videos could not be independently verified by CBS News, but they mirrored many similar videos posted online after previous attacks also allegedly using chlorine.

Ibrahem Alhaj, a member of the Syria Civil Defense first responders’ team, said he got to the scene in the crowded al-Sukkari neighborhood shortly after a helicopter dropped barrels containing what he said were four chlorine cylinders. He said he himself had difficulty breathing and used a mask soaked in salt water to prevent irritation.

At least 80 civilians were taken to hospitals and treated for breathing difficulties, he said. A video by the rescuers shows children crying and men coughing.

“Most of those injured where women and children,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “It is a crowded neighborhood.”

Chlorine gas is a crude weapon that can be fatal in high concentrations. In lower doses, it can damage lungs or cause severe breathing difficulties and other symptoms, including vomiting and nausea.

A team of international inspectors determined in late August that the Syrian government and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants were responsible for chemical attacks carried out in 2014 and 2015. But the U.N. Security Council failed to agree on whether to impose sanctions on the government in line with a September 2013 resolution authorizing sanctions that can be militarily enforced for any use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The resolution followed Syria’s approval of a Russian proposal to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. That averted a U.S. military strike in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

Russia, a close Syrian government ally, has blocked sanctions against President Bashar Assad’s government.

Meanwhile, an airstrike in the same rebel-held part of Aleppo killed 10 civilians on Wednesday, activists said.

In Wednesday’s airstrike, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least one child was among the victims of what was a presumed to have been a Russian or Syrian government attack on the al-Sukkari neighborhood in Aleppo.

The Aleppo branch of the Syrian Civil Defense search and rescue organization put the initial casualty toll at 20 dead and more than 40 wounded, but conflicting counts are common in the aftermath of airstrikes.

Amid the crisis in embattled Aleppo, 15 doctors in the city sent a letter to President Obama earlier this month, sharply criticizing what they characterized as U.S. inaction.

“Continued U.S. inaction to protect the civilians of Syria means that our plight is being wilfully tolerated by those in the international corridors of power. The burden of responsibility for the crimes of the Syrian government and its Russian ally must therefore be shared by those, including the United States, who allow them to continue,” the letter read. “We do not need tears or sympathy or even prayers, we need your action.”

The White House confirmed it had received the letter and released a statement later the same day:

“The U.S. has repeatedly condemned indiscriminate bombing of medical facilities by the Assad regime in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria. These attacks are appalling and must cease. We commend the bravery of medical professionals across Syria who are working every day in perilous circumstances with minimal supplies to save lives. The U.S. is working continuously to address the crisis in Syria working through the UN and engaging with Russia and others to find a diplomatic approach to reduce the violence in a sustainable way and allow unimpeded lifesaving humanitarian assistance into areas like Aleppo. As we have seen in and around Aleppo the last several days it is clear the fighting will not stop while both the regime and the opposition fight to encircle one another. A diplomatic solution is required.”‎