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Did chemical weapons kill people in Syria today?

Residents and medics transport a Syrian Army soldier, wounded in what they said was a chemical weapon attack near Aleppo, to a hospital on March 19, 2013.

George Ourfalian/Reuters

Has the Syrian government, having used SCUD missiles, air strikes and just about everything else, now deployed chemical weapons in its fight against opposition forces? Or do rebels now have chemical weapons as part of their arsenal? Was an "attack" that, according to some, killed 25 people in Aleppo today, an accident of some kind?

SANA, the government-run news agency, was clear about where to lay blame. It posted pictures of men, women and children on hospital beds and says 25 people were killed and 86 injured in Khan al Asil, a government-controlled area (map here – thanks to @brown_moses). Syrian state media blamed "terrorists" – the regime's catchall phrase for the forces opposing it on the battlefield – and were able to broadcast footage from the scene because it took place in a government-controlled area. By some accounts this adds to the argument that opponents of Damascus were to blame.

Russia, which has backed Bashar al-Assad and his government since the outset of revolt, also blamed rebels for the attack and a Reuters photographer in the area said the district "smelt strongly of chlorine."

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It is possible rebel groups have got their hands on weapons of a chemical nature – taken from government weapons stocks – but it is very unlikely they would be able to successfully launch a chemical warhead.

"There's no way the DIY rockets used by the opposition could deliver that volume of gas, and the government has claimed the missile or rocket used was fired from 30 km away, which seems well beyond the rebels DIY rocket-making capabilities," Brown Moses, a keen observer of weapons use in Syria, points out on Twitter.

Al Jazeera quoted a medic in the area, who said that the victims, among them government troops, were exposed to organic pesticides, not chemical weapons in Tuesday's attack. "Victims spoke of pungent smell. Chemical weapons are usually odourless. Moreover, the number of deaths is small compared to those who would have died had chemical weapons been used," the medic said.

It's possible we'll never find out what happened, but opponents and supporters of the Assad regime are blaming each other. A chemical attack or not, temperatures are rising further inside Syria.

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About the Author

Stephen Starr lived in Syria for five years until February 2012 and covered the revolt as a freelance journalist. He is the author of' Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising'. More


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