BEIRUT — Syrian state television and anti-government activists reported Saturday that poison gas, apparently chlorine, had been used in the central province of Hama, with each blaming the other side for an attack they said sickened more than 100.
The attack took place Friday evening in the village of Kfar Zayta, according to anti-government activists and doctors in Hama, who said patients with symptoms appeared after government helicopters dropped bombs that covered the area with thick smoke. Syrian state television said the attack killed two people, and it blamed the Nusra Front, an extremist Islamist insurgent group.
It was the first time since last year that both sides agreed that toxic weapons had been used. On Aug. 21, simultaneous sarin gas attacks in several Damascus suburbs killed hundreds and nearly led to U.S. airstrikes on Syrian government targets. The strikes were averted by an international deal to remove Syrias chemical weapons stockpiles. Western officials say there is clear evidence that the government carried out the August strikes, while the government blames insurgents.
Allegations of a new attack carry high stakes. If the government used toxic arms now, that would suggest that it felt safe to act with impunity because of international reluctance to launch a military strike. Since the Aug. 21 episode, government tactics such as starving insurgent-held areas and dropping barrel bombs in residential neighborhoods have yielded little pressure beyond a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for them to stop.
Neither side ruled out
Syrian officials, meanwhile, are eager to bolster their case that insurgents are responsible. Syrias U.N. ambassador, Bashar al-Jaafari, said recently that intelligence showed that insurgents were planning to use chemical weapons, an assertion government opponents interpreted as a sign that the government planned to use them.
Western officials say there is no indication that insurgents have toxic weapons, though they do not rule out the possibility that some extremists could seek them, particularly toxins such as chlorine that are easier to handle than sarin.
Numerous government attacks reported by the governments opponents in the months before August 2013 produced hard-to-classify symptoms and killed few people, raising speculation that low doses of banned chemical weapons or high concentrations of riot-control gases were used.
Some of those attacks were corroborated by state news media, which blamed insurgents, while others went unacknowledged by the government.
100 suffocations reported
On Saturday, anti-government activists posted a video showing a helicopter dropping a large object, resembling a barrel bomb, over Kfar Zayta at sunset on Friday, producing a large explosion. Several witnesses said the symptoms began to occur then.
Numerous videos posted online by anti-government activists showed several men struggling to breathe and being given oxygen, as well as children lying on a medical table, some appearing ill and others crying.
Dr. Nazih al-Ghazi, who was working in the villages field hospital, said in a Skype interview that there were more than 100 cases of suffocation after the barrel bombs fell. The smell was like chlorine or toilet bowl cleaner, but the symptoms fade directly within two hours, he said.
Al-Ghazi said the symptoms included a severe cough, difficulty breathing, blue lips and foaming at the mouth. He said the hospital was short of oxygen.
Seif al-Hamwi, an activist in the Hama suburbs, said over Skype that warplanes and helicopters dropped barrel bombs as government forces tried to storm the nearby town of Murak, meeting resistance from the Nusra Front and other fighters.
Umm Raghad, an anti-government activist from Hama using a pseudonym, said the Nusra Front was not in Kafr Zayta.
Had it existed there and done such an act, civilians and rebels would immediately expel it as they have done with ISIS in other places, she said, referring to the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The Syrian regime has been bombing and shelling Kafr Zayta for months because of the rebels presence there, she added, saying that shelling came from nearby government checkpoints.