New York) – Evidence strongly suggests that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April 2014, Human Rights Watch said today. These attacks used an industrial chemical as a weapon, an act banned by the international treaty prohibiting chemical weapons that Syria joined in October 2013. The Syrian government is the only party to the conflict with helicopters and other aircraft.
On April 29, the director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced a new mission to establish facts surrounding allegations of use of chlorine in Syria. The group said the Syrian government has agreed to accept this mission and to provide security in areas under its control.
“Syria’s apparent use of chlorine gas as a weapon – not to mention targeting of civilians – is a plain violation of international law,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This is one more reason for the UN Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.”
Human Rights Watch interviews with 10 witnesses, including five medical personnel, video footage of the attacks, and photographs of the remnants strongly suggest that government forces dropped barrel bombs containing embedded chlorine gas cylinders in attacks from April 11 to 21 on three towns in northwestern Syria. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch they saw a helicopter dropping a barrel bomb or heard a helicopter immediately prior to an explosion, followed immediately by a peculiar odor. The witnesses consistently described the clinical signs and symptoms of exposure to a choking agent (also known as a lung or pulmonary agent) by victims.
According to doctors who treated the victims and subsequently spoke to Human Rights Watch, these attacks killed at least 11 people and resulted in symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine in nearly 500 other people. The attacks documented by Human Rights Watch are:
On Keferzita, a town northwest of the city of Hama in the Hama governorate, on April 11 and 18 that killed 2 people and affected an estimated 200 people, 5 of them seriously, according to a local doctor; On al-Teman’a, a small town north of the city of Hama in Idlib governorate on April 13 and 18 that killed at least 6 and affected approximately 150 people, according to a member of the medical team in the field hospital and a second witness; and On Telmans, a town southeast of the city of Idlib in Idlib governorate, on April 21 that killed 3 people and affected an estimated 133, according to a volunteer at the local field hospital.
Telmans is 3 kilometers east of the government-controlled military base at Wadi al-Deif and 11 kilometers from al-Hamid, areas that witnesses described as the nearest front lines. Al-Teman’a is 7 kilometers from Khan Sheikhoun, which witnesses said is the nearest front line; Keferzita is 10 kilometers from Khan Sheikhoun. In an attack on Keferzita on April 11, a witness stated that fighters from an armed non-state armed group occupied a position 500 meters outside of town.
Video evidence and information published by local activists also suggest that barrel bombs with chlorine were used in Keferzita on April 12. Human Rights Watch was not able to corroborate these reports with witness accounts.
Seven of 10 people interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported smelling a distinct odor in the area targeted by the barrel bombs. They remarked that this odor was familiar and similar to that of common household cleaners. The witnesses are likely referring to bleach-containing cleaners, which comprise several chlorine-containing compounds, mainly hypochlorous acid. When chlorine gas dissolves in water, including water vapor in the air and water in the mucous membranes in the nose, hypochlorous acid is formed in large amounts. The report of an odor similar to that of household cleaners is consistent with the presence of chlorine gas.
Several interviewees reported that the odor lingered for several hours. Although chlorine gas itself is not persistent, these accounts are consistent with the persistence in the environment of hypochlorite compounds formed from the chlorine gas when it mixes with vapor in the air and mucous membranes in the nose.
Half of the people interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that the explosion of the barrel bombs produced “yellow smoke” or “dark yellowish smoke” in addition to the usual smoke from bomb explosions. A video shot on the western edge of Keferzita and uploaded to YouTube on April 11 shows the near vertical descent and detonation of an unidentified munition fully consistent with a barrel bomb dropped by helicopter. Several seconds after the explosion, a distinct yellow patch (see photo 4 below) forms at the base of a large cloud of dust and debris drifting to the east. Pure chlorine is a pale yellowish green in color. Such reports of an unusual “yellow smoke” at the attack site are consistent with the release of chlorine gas from the rupture of industrial compressed gas cylinders.
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