Syria Conflict: 'Chemical Attack' Kills 58 People in Rebel-Held Town

Idlib strike
People and a civil defence personnel carry children at a damaged site after an air strike on rebel-held Idlib city, Syria March 19, 2017. A monitoring group said the Syrian regime killed at least 35 people in a gas attack in Idlib on Tuesday. Reuters/Ammar Abdullah

Updated | A suspected chlorine gas attack on a rebel-held town in Syria killed at least 58 people in the northwestern province of Idlib on Tuesday, according to a monitoring group.

The attack took place in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) confirmed to Newsweek that at least nine children died in the attack, according to doctors it spoke with on the ground.

The monitor, which has an extensive network of opposition sources on the ground in Syria, provided an earlier death toll of 35, before increasing it to 58. The death toll may continue to rise.

"The doctors working in that area told me they saw the same description for the body that happens with a chlorine attack," Rami Abdulrahman, chief of SOHR, told Newsweek by phone.

The doctors reportedly described victims choking, some with foam leaving their mouths—symptoms that signaled chemical warfare. SOHR said dozens suffered respiratory problems.

Read more: U.N. inspectors find sarin and VX nerve agents in underground Syrian regime lab

It remains unclear who was responsible for the attack but the Syrian opposition currently participating in Geneva peace talks accused the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of carrying it out, calling for a U.N. investigation.

"The National Coalition demands the Security Council convene an emergency session..., open an immediate investigation and take the necessary measures to ensure the officials, perpetrators and supporters are held accountable," the body said in a statement on Tuesday, AFP news agency reported.

The U.N. has accused the Syrian regime of at least three previous chemical attacks—all chlorine gas—on Syrian populations in rebel-held areas since the conflict began in March 2011, sparked by a popular revolt against Assad's rule.

In December, Britain and France called for further U.N. sanctions against the Syrian regime in response to the allegations of chemical warfare. The government in Damascus continues to deny allegations that it has used chemical weapons against civilians.

"We have new massacres in Syria, still the international community is waiting, waiting for what, we do not know. Those who are killing civilian people—it doesn't matter if his name is ISIS, the regime, whoever—is a criminal," Abdulrahman says.

Activists shared images and footage on social media that appeared to show at least one suspected victim with foam coming out of his mouth, while others showed rescue volunteers hosing down children who could have been affected by the attack. The images were not immediately verifiable.

In September 2013, the U.N., U.S. and Russia struck a deal with the Syrian regime to disarm itself of any chemical weapons and hand over its entire stockpile. Damascus eventually handed over more than 1,000 tons of chemical material that could be used in weapons.

The agreement led to Syria joining the Chemical Weapons Convention in the aftermath of the regime's infamous sarin gas attack on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013. The worst attack in the six-year-long civil war, the chemical assault on Ghouta attack killed 1,429 people, including at least 426 children, according to U.S. government estimates.

Both the U.S. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog, declared by January 2015 that all of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile had been destroyed but later findings by a chemical weapons watchdog suggest the regime continues to produce chemical weapons.

This story has been updated to reflect an increase in the death toll.