BEIRUT: The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Sunday that reports of a poison gas attack in a village in Hama province were so far “unsubstantiated,” adding that Washington was trying to establish what really happened before it considers a response.
Both sides in Syria’s civil war blamed each other for the alleged attack that reportedly injured scores of people Friday amid an ongoing international effort to rid the country of chemical weapons.
The details of what happened in Kafr Zeita, an opposition-held village, remain murky. Online videos posted by rebel activists showed pale-faced men, women and children gasping for breath at what appeared to be a field hospital. They suggested an affliction by some kind of poison – and yet another clouded incident where both sides blame each other in a conflict that activists say has killed more than 150,000 people.
“We are trying to run this down,” said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, during an appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
“So far it’s unsubstantiated, but we’ve shown, I think, in the past that we will do everything in our power to establish what has happened and then consider possible steps in response,” she said.
Opposition groups, including the main National Coalition, said the poison gas attack hurt dozens of people, thought it did not identify the gas used.
State-run Syrian television blamed members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front rebel group for the attack, saying they used chlorine gas to kill two people and injure more than 100. It did not say how it confirmed chlorine was used.
The coalition urged the U.N. to conduct a “quick investigation into the developments related to the use of poisonous gas against civilians in Syria.” The coalition also claimed that another chemical weapons attack Friday struck the Damascus suburb of Harasta, though state media did not report on it.
Chlorine, one of the most commonly manufactured chemicals in the U.S., is used to purify drinking water. But as a gas, it can be deadly, with the German army using it in warfare in World War I. The Geneva Protocol of 1925, which Syria signed, banned its use in battle.
The TV report also claimed the Nusra Front was preparing for another chemical attack against the Wadi Deif area in the northern province of Idlib, as well as another area in Hama. The government station did not explain how it knew the Nusra Front’s plans.
The videos purporting to document what happened in Kafr Zeita were reminiscent – albeit on a much smaller scale – of an Aug. 21 chemical attack near the capital, Damascus, which killed hundreds of people.
The U.S. and its allies blamed the Syrian government for that attack, which crossed a “red line” that President Barack Obama had said would bring harsh consequences. The attack nearly sparked Western airstrikes before a negotiated diplomatic settlement saw Assad’s government agree to give up its chemical weapons. Damascus denied the charges and blamed rebels of staging the incident.
About half the weapons have been removed from Syria so far. The Syrian government has missed several deadlines, blaming the delays on security concerns.
The opposition also has claimed other, limited use of chemical weapons or poisonous gas attacks near Damascus in recent days.
A U.N. weapons inspectors’ report released in December identified four locations where chemical weapons likely had been used in 2013: Khan al-Assal outside Aleppo, Jobar in Damascus’ eastern suburbs, Saraqeb near Idlib in the northwest and Sahnaya in the Damascus countryside. In two cases, inspectors reportedly found “signatures of sarin,” a nerve agent.