BEIRUT/AMSTERDAM: Syrian government airstrikes targeted a vegetable market in a northern rebel-held town Thursday, killing at least 30 people and wounding scores of others, an anti-regime activist group said.
The attack came as the head of the global chemical weapons watchdog overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical stockpile is considering launching a fact-finding mission on his own initiative to investigate recent reports of chlorine gas attacks, sources said.
Fighter jets hit the crowded market in the Aleppo province town of Atareb in the early morning, killing 30 people, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The group said the death toll was likely to rise because many of the victims were seriously wounded.
Video footage from the aftermath of the strike, about 30 kilometers west of Aleppo, showed charred bodies in a street among rubble and burning debris.
The force of the blast destroyed at least one building and tore through the market, leaving bright piles of cucumbers and tomatoes amid the dust-covered corpses and rubble.
In the southern province of Deraa, a number of rebel groups attacked a strategic hilltop army post and overran the area, seizing two tanks and large caches of weapons.
The Observatory said six rebels, including fighters from the Nusra Front, were killed in the battle for Tal Jabieh, near the village of Nawa.
Activists posted video footage purporting to show the rebels as they examined the spoils and then used the captured equipment to shell government forces stationed in a valley below. Meanwhile, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said that 92.5 percent of Syria’s chemical materials had been removed from the country and destroyed.
The OPCW said in a statement that its experts in Syria have also verified that President Bashar Assad’s government had destroyed buildings, equipment and empty mustard gas containers, as well as decontaminating other containers in a number of chemical weapons storage and production sites.
Syria has missed several deadlines to eradicate its chemical weapons, but insists it will meet a final June 30 deadline.
But the group’s head is mulling whether to launch a fact-finding mission to investigate recent claims of the use of chlorine gas in government air attacks against rebel-held areas.
Syria became an OPCW member last year as part of a deal with Russia and the U.S. to destroy its chemical weapons program.
OPCW chief Ahmet Uzumcu has the authority to launch an investigation into alleged use of chemical weapons in member states, including Syria, without the need to seek a formal request from another member, sources told Reuters.
“The OPCW director general is considering, on his own initiative, sending a fact-finding mission,” one source said.
“A number of questions are still to be answered: Syrian consent, mandate of the mission, participants from other organizations, such as the World Health Organization,” the source said.
OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan declined to comment.
Several of Washington’s European allies, including Germany and France, support a probe into the latest claims of chlorine gas use, the sources said.
“The indications of the use of chlorine on 11-13 April in Hama province are particularly concerning,” a British official said.
“We think there needs to be an investigation of recent reports of the use of chemical weapons including chlorine, and we are working with others in the international community to establish how that should be done.”
The alleged attacks shared the same characteristics, leading analysts to believe they were part of a coordinated campaign, in which barrels of the toxic chemical have been dropped from helicopters.
“The convention forbids the use of toxic chemicals in warfare,” another source at the OPCW said. “If we close our eyes to any alleged use, we should be asking ourselves: what are we good for?”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius backed calls for an investigation.
“We are gathering precise elements, and if we find them then clearly several steps will have to be taken at the United Nations and the OPCW,” he said.
Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the chlorine gas charges were intended “to overshadow the achievements made by Syria” in ending its chemical weapons program.
As part of the agreement that averted U.S. military strikes last year, Damascus has until June 30 to destroy all chemical weapons, and their production and storage facilities.
Mekdad “refuted as baseless the allegation made by the U.S., France and Israel on using toxic materials by the Syrian Arab Army in any of the Syrian territories,” a statement said.