All evidence points to Assad behind suspected Syria chemical attack, UK says, as death toll rises to 72

A video grabbed still image shows Syrian people receiving treatment after an alleged chemical attack at a field hospital. PHOTO: EPA

BRUSSELS/BEIRUT (REUTERS, AFP) - All evidence points to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad being behind a suspected chemical weapons attack which left more than 70 dead in a rebel-held town, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Wednesday (April 5).

"All the evidence I have seen suggests this was the Assad regime... using illegal weapons on their own people," Johnson said as he arrived for a Syria aid conference in Brussels. "What it confirms to everybody is that this is a barbaric regime which has made it impossible for us to imagine them (having) authority over Syria after this conflict," he added.

The Brussels conference, co-chaired by the EU and UN, is a follow up to last year's London meeting which raised US$11 billion for humanitarian aid programmes in the devastated country. It is also meant to support UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva where mediator Staffan de Mistura has reported some very modest progress in solving a conflict which has claimed more than 320,000 lives and displaced most of the Syrian population.

Assad's future role is a key sticking point - the rebels and their international backers demand that he must step down. But Assad refuses to budge and his key ally in Moscow has backed him to the hilt against the rebels and shows no sign of changing tack.

Russia defended Damascus on Wednesday in the face of an international outcry. Its defence ministry said the gas incident in Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun was the result of gas leaking from a rebel chemical weapons depot after it was hit by Syrian government air strikes.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini urged the international community to press ahead with the peace talks, which were made even more urgent after Tuesday's suspected chemical weapons 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.

The death toll has risen to 72, 20 of them children, a monitoring group said on Wednesday.

"There were also 17 women among the dead and the death toll could rise further because there are people missing," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Rebel groups led by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front vowed revenge for Tuesday's strike.

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