Syria rebels deny firing chemical weapons, blame regime

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A Free Syrian Army commander denied state media reports on Tuesday that opposition forces were behind a chemical weapon attack in Aleppo, saying the government had fired a rocket with chemical agents on the town of Khanal-Assal.

“We were hearing reports from early this morning about a regime attack on Khan al-Assal, and we believe they fired a Scud with chemical agents. Then suddenly we learned that the regime was turning these reports against us,” said Qassim Saadeddine, a senior Free Army Commander and spokesman for the Higher Military Council in Aleppo. “The rebels were not behind this attack.”

Early Tuesday, Syrian opposition fighters were accused by government state news agency of using chemical weapons during the attack on the northern province of Aleppo’s Khan al-Asal that killed 15 people and poisoned others.

“Terrorists fired rockets containing chemical materials on Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province, and preliminary information suggests 15 people were killed, mostly civilians,” the state news agency SANA and Syrian state television said.

The accusation is the first such claim by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against rebel forces, though the international community has warned the regime against deploying its own stocks of chemical weapons.

There are also concerns that the weapons could fall into the hands of militants, with the United States and Israel particularly concerned about the fate of the arms if the regime loses control over them.

Russia accuses Syrian rebels

Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday it had information that Syrian rebels used chemical weapons that killed 16 people and injured 100 in Aleppo province.

“According to information we are getting from Damascus, early in the morning on March 19, in Aleppo province there was a case of the Syrian opposition using chemical weapons,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The statement did not make clear whether Russia’s information was coming from its own sources or Syrian government officials.

The ministry said it was “seriously concerned by the fact that weapons of mass destruction have fallen into the hands of the rebels, which even further complicates the situation in Syria.”

The statement once again called on all sides to renounce violence and negotiate to end to the two-year conflict.

Russia is viewed as one of Syria’s closest allies and has three times blocked U.N. sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

No independent information on weapons

An international anti-chemical weapons body said it had no independent information about any use of such arms in Syria - as claimed by both sides in the conflict on Tuesday - but it was “closely monitoring” the situation.

Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said it would look at media reports about what had happened and “try to identify the symptoms which may be detected” in order to make an assessment.

Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, which dates back to the 1970s, is the biggest in the Middle East, but its precise scope remains unclear, according to analysts, and the regime has not acknowledged having the arms.

The country has hundreds of tons of various chemical agents, including sarin and VX nerve agents, as well as older blistering agents such as mustard gas, dispersed in dozens of manufacturing and storage sites, experts say.

But it remains unclear if the chemical weapons are mounted and ready to be launched on Scud missiles, if the chemical agents are maintained effectively, and whether the regime is able to replenish its chemical stocks.

Assad fighting a two-year uprising against his rule, is widely believed to have a chemical arsenal. Syrian officials have neither confirmed nor denied having a chemical weapons capability but have said that if it existed it would be used to defend against foreign aggression, not against Syrians.

Syrian rebels make some gains

On ground, Syrian rebels on Tuesday seized a guard post near the Jordanian border and a tank brigade headquarters in the south of the country, after regime forces withdrew, a watchdog reported.

“They managed to seize control of a border post near Tel Shehab at dawn after regime forces evacuated the post following violent clashes,” Rami Abdel Rahman, directer of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Videos of the area posted on YouTube showed armed men around the post, in cars, motorbikes and on foot. The post appeared to be a small building in a largely uninhabited area.

Signs of the battle were visible on the walls of the building, around which armed men milled taking photos of a tank abandoned by soldiers.

“The heroes of Fajr al-Islam seized the base,” the person filming the scene said, though another added that the Moataz Billah brigade had also taken part.

Abdel Rahman also said rebels had seized control of a tank brigade headquarters in the Naama region of southern Daraa province after fierce fighting that prompted regime troops to fall back.

The captures came after a bloody day in Syria on Monday, with 161 people killed across the country, according to Observatory figures.