Soil samples from Syria chemical attack sent to western agencies

Martin Chulov

Rescue workers have gathered soil samples from the scene of a chemical weapons attack in northern Syria and sent them to western intelligence officials, who are seeking to determine precisely what nerve agent was used in one of the worst atrocities of the country’s six-year war.

The death toll from the attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun in Idlib province rose to at least 72 on Wednesday, with more than 300 other people harmed. The US, Britain and France all said it was very likely that sarin was dropped on the town.

As global condemnation of the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad mounted, Russia swung further behind its ally, denouncing a proposed UN resolution that blamed the regime for the attack and claiming that a depot used by opposition groups to store a nerve agent had been inadvertently bombed.

However, Jerry Smith, the operations chief of the UN team that supervised the surrender of Syria’s sarin stockpiles after more than 1,000 people were killed by the nerve agent in August 2013, said the components of the gas were almost always stored separately until they were about to be used.

“The Assad regime had two final precursors that would only be mixed just before use,” he said. “This scenario is that it was premade sarin in a store and, as a result of being hit, it has dispersed. This is plausible, but it requires a lot of things to align.”

The US ambassador to the UN rebuked Moscow for failing to rein in its ally. As security council members met in New York to discuss a draft resolution that would pin the blame on Assad’s regime, Nikki Haley asked: “How many more children have to die before Russia cares?”

Witnesses said at least one Syrian warplane dropped bombs on Khan Sheikhun at about 6.30am on Tuesday. Shortly afterwards, first responders were overwhelmed with patients suffering from acute breathing problems, foaming at the mouth and writhing in pain.

Aid agencies including Médecins Sans Frontières and medics in Turkey said patients showed clear symptoms of exposure to sarin. MSF said it had treated eight people in a clinic near the Turkish border.

The Syrian American Medical Society said it had treated victims with identical symptoms. “Among the victims of the attack on the town of Khan Sheikhun who were transferred to the Bab Al Hawa hospital … [We] saw eight patients with symptoms – dilated pupils, muscle spasms, involuntary defecation – consistent with exposure to neurotoxic agents such as sarin,” the organisation said.

Amnesty International said it had interviewed a nurse who was working at the Rahma hospital when the attack happened. “The sound of the explosion was not what we are used to,” the nurse said. “My colleagues and I thought that this one hadn’t exploded, because of the thump sound it made, not an explosion sound.

“A few minutes later, around 6.35am, the first victims were brought in, and then the flow just kept going until around 9am. There was a huge number of people and aides being brought in, and there were only four of us medics at the hospital at the time, and one of us also got infected.”

Many of the victims of the attack appear to have been poisoned as they slept in their beds. “The smell reached us here in the centre; it smelled like rotten food,” the nurse said. “We’ve received victims of chlorine attacks before – this was completely different.

“Victims had vomit from the nose and mouth, a dark yellow colour, sometimes turning to brown. Paralysis in respiratory functions – children were dying faster than adults because of this. We tried injections … but it just didn’t work. Victims were unable to swallow – they were unconscious, completely unresponsive.”

Citizens have begun burying the bodies of people killed in Khan Sheikhun. Photograph: Fadi Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Haley issued what appeared to be a threat of unilateral action if security council members could not agree on the draft resolution. “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action,” she said, without elaborating.

US president Donald Trump described the attack as “horrible”, “unspeakable” and a “terrible affront to humanity”. Asked whether he was formulating a new policy towards Syria, Trump, who has previously said he wanted to partner with the regime in the fight against Isis, told reporters: “You’ll see.”

Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, reiterated his claim that the Assad government was responsible and urged the Syrian leader to step down. “Objectively, I simply don’t see how Bashar al-Assad can remain in charge after what he has already done,” he said.

“Of the 400,000 who are estimated to have been killed in Syria, he is responsible for the vast majority of that butcher’s bill. And you have to go a long way back in history to find a tyrant who has stayed in office given such circumstances.”

Idlib map

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a staunch critic of Assad for much of the war, condemned the Syrian leader and the international community and described those who had died as “martyrs due to chemical weapons”.

“The world that remains silent, the United Nations that remains silent – how will you be brought to account for this?” Erdoğan said at a rally for Turkey’s upcoming referendum. “Hey, murderer Assad, how are you going to escape from their curse?”

Samples taken from the scene in Khan Sheikhun, as well as biological specimens taken from survivors and casualties, will be compared with samples taken by intelligence officials from the Syrian military stockpile when it was withdrawn from the country in late 2013. Syria’s stores of sarin are known to have particular properties, which experts say can be forensically matched to samples taken in the field.

If the samples match, this would offer strong evidence that not all the country’s sarin was disclosed or surrendered, as was demanded under an agreement brokered by Russia, which the US president at the time, Barack Obama, said averted the need for US-led airstrikes designed to punish Assad for the 2013 attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

Assad has denied using chemical weapons at any point during the war. He blamed terror groups for the massacre in Ghouta and has repeatedly denied using chlorine – a less lethal gas that, unlike sarin, is not outlawed because it has an industrial purpose.

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes