At least 58 people, including nine children, were killed in an air raid that released “toxic gas” on the rebel-held Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday, a monitor said.
The attack caused many people to choke or faint, and some had foam coming from their mouths, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, citing medical sources who described the symptoms as signs of a gas attack.
The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using such weapons and the Syrian army could not immediately be reached for comment.
The AFP news agency, citing one of its journalists on the scene, and opposition activists later said that a rocket had slammed into a hospital where the victims were being treated, bringing rubble down on top of medics as they struggled to deal with victims.
The Observatory monitoring group, which tracks the war through a network of contacts on the ground, was unable to confirm the nature of the substance used.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Beirut, said locals on ground expected that the number of dead would increase and that many of the wounded were children.
“There were people fainting, they were vomiting, they were foaming at the mouth,” Fisher said.
“In that situation, the treatment tends to be to try and strip people off, to get the chemicals away from their bodies, to hose them down as quickly as possible. But even then some of the pictures that have been posted on social media in the last couple of hours show very young people struggling for breath, many people dead where they fell.”
Fisher reported that hospitals in the area were overwhelmed with the scale of the apparent attack and that footage showed them struggling to cope with the number of victims.
“Al Jazeera has no way of independently confirming the stories that are coming from there but the reality is there are a number of sources who are saying so many similar things, Fisher said. “It appears that what we’re being told is a fair reflection of the current events in Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province in Syria.”
The Edlib Media Centre (EMC), a pro-opposition group, posted images that were widely shared on social media, showing many people being treated by medics and what appeared to be dead bodies.
The national opposition in Syria called for an immediate United Nations investigation and for the UN Security Council to hold an emergency meeting and condemn those behind the attack.The French government also called on the Security Council to meet.
“A new and particularly serious chemical attack took place this morning in Idlib province. The first information suggests a large number of victims, including children. I condemn this disgusting act,” France’s foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said in a statement.
“In the face of such serious actions that threaten international security, I ask for everyone not to shirk their responsibilities,” he added.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the “inhuman” attack could endanger peace talks, AFP reporting, citing sources.
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