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Chlorine used in attack on Syrian opposition-held area in 2016: Watchdog

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Chlorine was used in an attack on an area in Syria held by opposition forces in 2016 in which at least 20 people suffered breathing difficulties, the world's chemical weapons watchdog concluded Tuesday.

The incident near a field hospital outside the town of Kafr Zeita came shortly after witnesses reported a helicopter dropping at least one object, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said.

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Inspectors obtained an industrial chlorine cylinder retrieved from the site and were able to “positively link” it to the October 1, 2016 attack, helped by digital evidence and witness interviews, it said.

“The report concluded there are reasonable grounds to believe that the industrial chlorine cylinder was used as a weapon,” the OPCW said in a statement, based on a report by its Fact-Finding Mission which probes chemical attacks in Syria.

Witnesses reported a helicopter taking off from regime-held Hama airport before the attack, on an agricultural area where a number of opposition groups were sheltering in caves.

“Shortly afterwards, the helicopter dropped two barrels, according to a number of witnesses, while others reported being aware of one barrel only,” the report said.

“Approximately 20 individuals suffered from suffocation and breathing difficulties.”

The inspectors found that “the cylinder ruptured as a result of mechanical force and released a toxic irritant substance,” said the report.

The report by the Hague-based OPCW will add to pressure on Syrian President Bashar-al Assad's regime from Western countries to come clean over its alleged chemical weapons use.

Syria denies the use of chemical weapons and insists it has handed over its weapons stockpiles under a 2013 agreement with the US and Russia, prompted by a suspected sarin gas attack that killed 1,400 in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta.

Both sides have been accused of chemical weapons use in the conflict, although the majority of the alleged incidents have been blamed on the Syrian regime.
An OPCW report last week found that mustard agent was used in a 2015 ISIS attack in northern Syria.

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