Syrian govt denies launching chemical strike on rebel town

US President Donald Trump says the chemical attack in Syria is an 'affront to humanity' and 'crosses many, many lines'.

Trump says Assad regime has gone 'beyond red line'; Turkey says autopsies confirm use of chemical weapons

DAMASCUS (REUTERS, AFP, BLOOMBERG) - The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its chief benefactor, Russia, have dismissed accusations that Syrian forces were responsible for a chemical attack on a rebel-held town on Tuesday which killed 86 people, as the Turkish authorities said autopsies of three victims confirmed that such an attack had taken place.

Syria's armed forces "did not and will not" use chemical weapons, even against militant groups, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said at a news conference in Damascus yesterday.

He was speaking after the attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in north-western Syria sparked international outrage, with many pointing the finger at the government of President Assad.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the allegations that Syrian forces were responsible for the attack were not based on "objective" information.

"Any data that the American side or our colleagues in other countries could have cannot be based on objective materials or evidence," he told reporters. He denounced the incident in Khan Sheikhoun as a "monstrous crime".

A close ally of the Assad regime, Russia said on Wednesday that "toxic substances" may have been released when Syrian forces struck a "terrorist warehouse".

United States President Donald Trump, however, was clear about who was culpable.

He said the Assad regime had gone "beyond a red line", adding that his attitude towards Syria and its leaders had "changed very much".

Standing alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan at the White House, he called Tuesday's incident "an affront to humanity", saying: "These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated."

He said it was now his "responsibility" to respond but did not elaborate, leaving some observers to speculate that the US leader might have been hinting at unilateral action.

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson emphasised, however, that a United Nations resolution should be passed before any unilateral action was taken.

"It is very important to try first to get out a UN resolution," Mr Johnson told reporters in Sarajevo.

"I cannot understand how anybody on the UN Security Council could fail to sign up to a motion condemning the actions of the regime that is almost certainly responsible for that crime," he said.

France is pushing for such a council resolution, but its Foreign Minister, Mr Jean-Marc Ayrault, did not sound optimistic after the first discussions on Wednesday.

"It is difficult because, up to now, every time we have presented a resolution, there has been a veto by Russia and sometimes by China... but we must cooperate because we need to stop this massacre," he said.

Meanwhile, Turkey's Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag disclosed the results of post-mortem examinations conducted on three Syrians who were injured in Tuesday's attack but died in Turkey after being taken to the southern province of Adana.

The post-mortem investigations were conducted by officials from the World Health Organisation in Adana, along with officials from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Mr Bozdag said.

"The results of the autopsy confirm that chemical weapons were used," he told the state-run Anadolu news agency.

"This scientific investigation also confirms that Assad used chemical weapons," he added, without giving further details.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2017, with the headline 'Syrian govt denies launching chemical strike on rebel town'. Print Edition | Subscribe