Diplomats spar over blame in Syria attack

In this photo taken on Tuesday, April 4, 2017 and made available Wednesday, April 5, Turkish experts evacuate a victim of alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syrian city of Idlib, at a local hospital in Reyhanli, Hatay, Turkey. A suspected chemical attack in a town in Syria's rebel-held northern Idlib province killed dozens of people on Tuesday, opposition activists said, describing the attack as among the worst in the country's six-year civil war. (DHA-Depo Photos via AP)

BEIRUT — Diplomats at the U.N. Security Council sparred Wednesday over whether to hold President Bashar Assad’s government responsible for a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 people in northern Syria, while U.S. intelligence officials, Doctors Without Borders and the U.N. health agency said evidence pointed to nerve gas exposure.

The Trump administration and other world leaders said the Syrian government was to blame, but Moscow, a key ally of Assad, said the assault was caused by a Syrian airstrike that hit a rebel stockpile of chemical arms.

Early U.S. assessments showed the use of chlorine gas and traces of the nerve agent sarin in the attack Tuesday that terrorized the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, according to two U.S. officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.

Israeli military intelligence officers also believe Syrian government forces were behind the attack, Israeli defense officials told The Associated Press. Israel believes Assad has tons of chemical weapons still in his arsenal, despite a concerted operation three years ago by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to rid the government of its stockpile, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the media. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also blamed the Syrian government for the attack. In Khan Sheikhoun, rescue workers found terrified survivors still hiding in shelters as another wave of airstrikes battered the town Wednesday. Those strikes appeared to deliver only conventional weapons damage.

Among those discovered alive were two women and a boy found hiding in a shelter beneath their home, the Civil Defense search and rescue group told the AP.

The effects of the attack overwhelmed hospitals around the town, leading paramedics to send patients to medical facilities across rebel-held areas in northern Syria, as well as to Turkey. The Turkish Health Ministry said three victims died receiving treatment inside its borders. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group put the toll at 86 killed.

Victims of the attack showed signs of nerve gas exposure, the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders said, including suffocation, foaming at the mouth, convulsions, constricted pupils and involuntary defecation. Paramedics were using fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims.

Medical teams also reported smelling bleach on survivors of the attack, suggesting chlorine gas was also used, Doctors Without Borders said.

The magnitude of the attack was reflected in the images of the dead — children piled in heaps for burial, a father carrying his lifeless young twins.

The visuals from the scene were reminiscent of a 2013 nerve gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead.