Russia rushed to the defense of its ally Damascus on Wednesday over a chemical attack that has left scores of casualties in northwestern Syria, as warplanes reportedly mounted more air strikes in the same area despite an international outcry.
Moscow said the deaths were caused when in the early hours of Tuesday morning a Syrian air strike hit a “terrorist warehouse” containing “toxic substances” in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province.
The Russian defense ministry said in a statement that the building housed “a warehouse making bombs, with toxic substances”, without saying if the strike was accidental or deliberate.
The ministry said the “arsenal of chemical weapons” was intended for fighters in Iraq, describing its information as “completely reliable and objective.”
But Hasan Haj Ali, commander of the Free Idlib Army rebel group, called the Russian statement a “lie.”
“Everyone saw the plane while it was bombing with gas,” he told Reuters from northwestern Syria.
“Likewise, all the civilians in the area know that there are no military positions there, or places for the manufacture (of weapons). The various factions of the opposition are not capable of producing these substances.”
Despite the international outcry, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that warplanes mounted on Wednesday five air strikes in the same area that was targeted in the chemical attack.
The Observatory report did not identify the fighter jets.
The UN Security Council was to hold an emergency meeting later Wednesday on the attack, which killed at least 72 civilians, among them 20 children.
Britain, France and the United States were to present a resolution to the Security Council calling for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to quickly report findings on the attack.
But it was unclear if Russia would veto the measure, as it has often done with previous Council resolutions concerning Syria.
UN chief Antonio Guterres said the “horrific events” showed that “war crimes are going on in Syria.”
He said the UN wanted to establish accountability for such crimes and he was “confident the UN Security Council will live up to its responsibilities.”
Washington and London blamed Damascus more directly though Bashar al-Assad’s regime has denied any use of chemical weapons.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “All the evidence I have seen suggests this was the Assad regime.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also said: “it is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism.”
The new incident means US President Donald Trump is faced with same dilemma that faced his predecessor Barack Obama: whether to openly challenge Moscow and risk deep involvement in a Middle East war by seeking to punish Assad for using banned weapons, or compromise and accept the head of the regime remaining in power at the risk of looking weak.
Trump described Tuesday’s incident as “heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime”, but also faulted Obama for having failed to enforce the red line four years ago. Obama’s spokesman declined to comment.
Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit said on Wednesday that the chemical attack was “a major crime.”
“Whoever carried it out will not escape from justice, and must be punished by the international community according to international law and international humanitarian law,” he said, without specifying who he held responsible.
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini urged the international community to press ahead with Syria peace talks, made more urgent after the chemical attack.
“We need to give a push, a strong push to the political talks in Geneva. We have to unite the international community behind these negotiations,” Mogherini said.