Footage shows Syrian children choking after apparent chlorine gas attack
At least 10 killed in airstrike 1 day after alleged chemical attack in opposition-held Aleppo neighbourhood
New footage has emerged of civilians, many of them children, choking in the aftermath of an apparent attack with poison chlorine gas on an opposition-held district of Aleppo as the battle for Syria's biggest city approaches what could be a decisive phase.
Medical officials say they treated at least 70 people for breathing difficulties after the alleged chlorine attack on Tuesday. A 13-year-old girl and a 29-year-old man died from further complications on Wednesday in the al-Sukkari neighbourhood in the contested city.
Activists and medical workers say Syrian government and Russian jets are behind the attacks. Accusations involving use of chlorine and other poisonous gases are not uncommon in Syria's civil war, and both sides have denied using them while blaming the other for using them as a weapon of war.
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Aleppo has been divided for years into government and rebel sectors, but President Bashar al-Assad's army has put the opposition areas under siege and now hopes to capture the whole city in what would be a devastating blow to his enemies.
Violence continued in al-Sukkari on Wednesday with Syrian activists saying at least 10 civilians were killed in an airstrike. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least one child was among the victims.
An Iraqi Shia militia said on Wednesday it had dispatched more than 1,000 fighters to the front line in neighbouring Syria, escalating foreign involvement in the battle for Aleppo. Government forces are backed by Russian air power and battle-hardened Lebanese and Iraqi Shia militia fighters under the apparent oversight of an Iranian general.
The arrival of reinforcements from Iraq, where Shia militia are fighting their own war against the the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) shows how the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts have leapt borders, to become a broad sectarian war across the Middle East.
Five years after the multi-sided war began, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and 11 million — half of Syria's pre-war population — displaced. But there is little sign that any party is poised for victory or can restore stability, and foreign powers are becoming more involved.
In recent weeks, Turkey has sent troops across the border to combat ISIS and Kurdish fighters. The United States, which is trying to negotiate a ceasefire with Russia, has backed Kurdish forces advancing against ISIS.
Meanwhile, the plight of some 250,000 civilians trapped in rebel-held districts of Aleppo has spurred international efforts to agree to a new humanitarian truce. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have not reached agreement over the details of a ceasefire.
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Western countries, Turkey and most Arab states oppose both Assad's government and ISIS, while supporting other anti-Assad factions. Russia and Iran support Assad.
The latest apparent poison gas attack adds to a litany of what Assad's opponents say is deliberate targeting of civilians, often with banned weapons, to force rebels to surrender.
Footage of the apparent chlorine gas attack on the al-Sukari district showed crying children being doused with water and then lying on hospital beds and breathing through respirators.
Rescue workers in the rebel-held area said army helicopters had dropped the chlorine in incendiary barrel bombs, an accusation the government has rejected.
"We have not and will not use at any point this type of weapon," a Syrian military source said, accusing rebels of making false accusations to distract attention from their defeats.
However, the government has a history of being accused of similar attacks. An inquiry by the United Nations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) seen by Reuters last month said the Syrian army had been responsible for two chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015.
In 2013, Western countries accused Assad's government of attacking a Damascus suburb with nerve gas. At the time, Assad fended off a threatened U.S. bombing campaign only by agreeing to give up his arsenal of chemical weapons, later destroyed by the OPCW.
But Syria still possesses chlorine, which is used for water purification and other legitimate industrial processes.
Ramousah, its surroundings, and the countryside between it and the village of Khan Touman seven kilometres to its southwest were the site of intense bombardment by Russian jets and attacks by Shia militias in recent weeks, rebels say.
On Tuesday night, jets bombed Khan Touman and neighbouring areas, and intense clashes took place in Ramousah and its surroundings, with rebels targeting an army tank, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor reported.
Rebels also shelled government-held residential districts in western Aleppo, the Observatory reported.
"All the [rebel] factions are trying to prepare themselves to launch a new attack on the regime positions in Ramousah. It's not over," a senior source in the insurgency said.
With files from Associated Press