Syrian activists report chlorine gas attacks in village north of Damascus

BY Sarah Sheffer  May 23, 2014 at 12:48 PM EST
Video still by PBS NewsHour

Video still by PBS NewsHour

Video footage purporting to show a chlorine gas attack in the Syrian village of Kfar Zeita on Thursday was released by Syrian opposition activists. It would be evidence of a new chemical weapons campaign in the country’s civil war. Activists say the small village north of Damascus has been hit by a two-month-long aerial chemical assault in which chlorine canisters have been dropped from helicopters.

The video shows residents of Kfar Zeita covering their faces and running from a yellowish gas looming in the street. It later shows an emergency room full of people, struggling to breathe and seeking treatment.

The Syrian government denied the use of chlorine gas and blamed the attacks on “terrorist elements.”

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons opened an investigation into the chlorine gas allegations last month.

“The alleged use of chlorine in Syria is of grave concern to the OPCW and the international community,”said OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü in a briefing on Friday. “All efforts should be made, by all parties to the conflict, to enable safe access for our team enabling it to conduct its important work.”

Despite an international agreement that forces Syria to hand over its chemical weapons stockpiles, 8 percent of its chemical weapons, or about 100 metric tons, still remain in the embattled country. Syrian authorities agreed to move the weapons after hundreds of people were killed in a sarin gas attack outside of Damascus in 2013, but they say the remaining weapons cannot be moved due to security concerns.

Though less deadly than sarin gas, the use of chlorine gas as a chemical weapon is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria joined in 2013. But Syria did not declare chlorine as part of its weapons stockpile, hampering international efforts to rid the country of the chemical.

On Thursday, Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council vote to refer the Syrian government to the International Criminal Court for charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.