Witness of Syria chemical attack gives graphic account as death toll climbs

Hussam Salloum, a volunteer with an air-raid warning service in rebel-held areas, described watching a Sukhoi-22 aircraft, a Syrian army jet, approach the town at low altitude.

Nikki Haley, the US's ambassador to the United Nations, warned an emergency session of the Security Council on April 5, 2017 that Washington was prepared to act against Syria – with or without UN cooperation. Justin Lane / EPA
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BEIRUT // A witness who filmed the nerve-gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun from a nearby hilltop gave a graphic account yesterday of the massacre that claimed the lives of 75 people, including 20 children.

Hussam Salloum, a volunteer with an air-raid warning service in rebel-held areas, described watching a Sukhoi-22 aircraft, a Syrian army jet, approach the town at low altitude.

The warplane dropped three conventional explosive bombs – and a fourth that made little sound on impact but produced a cloud of smoke.

“The smoke was white and thick,” he said. “It began to spread out, until there was a layer over the town.”

Mr Salloum watched the raid from about 1.5 kilometres away and used a walkie-talkie to alert rescue workers.

“The pilot carried out the bombing in one go, four bombs together,” he said.

“We discovered it was toxic gas from a civil defence worker who went to the place quickly. He told us there was an unusual smell. Less than a minute later, he told us he was dizzy and fainting. We lost contact with him.”

His account emerged as Nikki Haley, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, warned an emergency session of the Security Council that the US was prepared to act against Syria with or without UN cooperation.

“Assad, Russia and Iran have no interest in peace. The illegitimate Syrian government, led by a man with no conscience, has committed untold atrocities against his people,” Ms Haley told the 15-member council.

“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 did not specify what form the action would take but her tough-talking stance found immediate support from other member states.

“We’re talking about war crimes,” said the French UN ambassador Francois Delattre. “We urge Russia to exert much stronger pressure on the regime. Frankly we also need an America that is seriously committed to a solution in Syria and that puts all its weight behind it.”

Russia, Syria’s main ally, insisted Syrian jets had not dropped the chemical weapons on Khan Sheihoun, in rebel-held Idlib province. Moscow claimed the gas was released when Syrian warplanes bombed a rebel chemical weapons plant, but the claim was dismissed by chemical weapons experts as “fanciful”. An American review of radar and other assessments showed Assad regime aircraft flying over the area at the time of the attack.

During what became a highly-charged meeting in New York, Ms Haley held up photographs of children who were killed in the attack on Tuesday. Britain also weighed in as the UK envoy Matthew Rycroft asked Russia: “What is your plan? What is your plan to stop these horrific senseless attacks? We had a plan and we had the support and you rejected it to protect Assad.”

Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Vladimir Safronkov, said Russia had more than one plan but the first was to fight terrorism.

Russia has consistently vetoed numerous UN peace initiatives and did so again when the United States, Britain and France proposed a Security Council resolution to condemn the latest chemical weapons attack, and to press Syria into handing over to an international inquiry all flight plans and logs for Tuesday, plus the names of all helicopter squadron commanders and access to airbases.

Russia described the draft resolution as “unacceptable.” Instead the Russian foreign ministry said the rebel forces in Idlib should “offer full access to study the area and collect necessary information”.

Those vetoes by Russia had only encouraged Mr Al Assad and Tuesday’s attack was “the consequence”, said Mr Rycroft.

The type of chemical used in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun has yet to be ascertained.

It was initially assumed that chlorine was used but the World Health Organisation said victims seemed to show symptoms consistent with exposure to organophosphorus chemicals. Sarin is an organophosphorus compound, while chlorine is not.

Medicins Sans Frontieres said eight people it treated had symptoms consistent with nerve agents such as sarin. The medical charity said it had also been to hospitals where it had noted a strong smell of chlorine, another toxic agent.

Some of the dead, including children, showed no visible injuries, indicating the gas had killed them in their beds, said Mouin Abed Al Menem, a doctor who treated several victims.

Rescue workers found the bodies of a woman and two children yesterday in a cave where they had been sheltering, according to the civil defence emergency service that operates in rebel-held areas.

Abdel Hameed Al Youssef lost his wife Dalal and their nine-month-old twins Aya and Ahmed. He held a baby in each arm, murmuring his goodbyes to their lifeless bodies.

He was beside the babies when the air raid happened at dawn. “I was right beside them and I carried them outside the house with their mother,” said Mr Youssef, 29, a shop owner. “They were conscious at first, but 10 minutes later we could smell the odour.” The twins and his wife, Dalal Ahmed, became sick.

He brought them to paramedics and, thinking they would be OK, went to look for the rest of his family. He found the bodies of two of his brothers, two nephews and a niece, as well as neighbours and friends. “I couldn’t save anyone, they’re all dead now,” he said.

Only later was he told his children and wife had died too. Mr Yousseff is receiving treatment for exposure to the toxin. “Abdel Hameed is in very bad shape,” said his cousin, Alaa. “But he’s especially broken down over his massive loss.”

Away from the UN, condemnation continued to be heaped on Syria and its ally, Russia. In Washington, US defence secretary Jim Mattis said the poison gas attack was a “heinous act and would be treated as such.” British foreign secretary Boris Johnson also pointed the finger of blame firmly at Damascus.

In Turkey, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “Hey murderer Assad, how are you going to escape from the victims’ curse?” Mr Erdogan also denounced the world’s silence on the killings.

“Hey, the world that remains silent, the United Nations that remains silent. How will you be brought to account for this?”

About 30 people were taken to Turkish hospitals for treatment. “We are doing our best but that’s not enough,” Mr Erdogan said. “They are our kids, our brothers. I am sad as a father.”

Mr Erdogan telephoned Russian president Vladimir Putin within hours of the attack to tell him the “inhuman attack” was unacceptable and also violated the ceasefire brokered between Ankara and Moscow.

International donors yesterday pledged $6 billion in aid for Syria this year at a conference in Brussels. The meeting, co-chaired by the European Union and United Nations, was a follow-up to a meeting last year in London that raised $12 billion for humanitarian aid programmes.

“We are not letting down the people of Syria,” EU humanitarian aid commissioner Christos Stylianides told delegates.

* Reuters and Associated Press