Russian officials on Wednesday blamed the poisonous gas contamination that activists say killed at least 83 people — including 25 children — on a leak from a chemical weapons cache that had been hit by Syrian government air strikes.
The U.S. has said the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was behind the incident, which relief agency UOSSM say injured at least 350. The gassing, documented in horrific photos and video that NBC News has not verified, would mark one of the worst of its kind in Syria’s six-year civil war.
“Yesterday, from 11:30 am to 12:30 p.m. local time, Syrian aviation made a strike on a large terrorist ammunition depot and a concentration of military hardware in the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun town,” Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konoshenkov said in a video statement, referring to the rebel-held town in northern Syria where the alleged attack was recorded on Tuesday morning.
“On the territory of the depot there were workshops which produced chemical warfare munitions,” Konoshenkov said.
Russia is a key supporter of Assad, who has been fighting rebels trying to unseat him for more than six years. Konoshenkov also claimed chemical munitions had been used by rebels in Aleppo last year.
Russian officials did not provide any evidence to support the allegations.
The Syrian government has denied any involvement and said it was complying with the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans such instruments of war, according to SANA, the Syrian state-run news agency. Instead, the government blamed “armed terrorist organizations” for the attack.
“The Syrian Arab republic stresses that all those fabricated allegations will not prevent it from continuing its war on terrorism … and from working for a political solution to the crisis in Syria,” SANA reported.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which monitors the chemical weapons treaty, said it had set up a fact-finding mission to get to the bottom of Tuesday’s attack.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said the attack clearly used banned chemical weapons.
Tillerson noted that the attack was the third time such weapons are alleged to have been used this month, charging: “It is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism.
“Those who defend and support him, including Russia and Iran, should have no illusions about Assad or his intentions,” Tillerson said in a statement. “Anyone who uses chemical weapons to attack his own people shows a fundamental disregard for human decency and must be held accountable.”