Dozens of people, including at least 20 children, have been killed in a reported chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria, according to a Syrian monitoring group.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based network, said on Wednesday 72 people had died after fighter jets bombed the town in Idlib province. Activists and doctors who spoke to BuzzFeed News on Tuesday had warned the death toll was much higher and hundreds more have been injured. BuzzFeed News has not been able to independently verify the figures.
Doctors who worked in hospitals near the site of the attack said they were receiving scores of wounded patients, and many who were fainting, vomiting, and foaming at the mouth — symptoms they said were signs of a chemical attack.
A Syrian doctor at a local hospital told BuzzFeed News many victims who were brought in came suffocated and with "narrowing of the eyeballs".
"People looked shocked and they lacked awareness," said Firas al-Jundi, a doctor at the Mara al-Nu'man hospital, about 12 miles from Khan Sheikhoun.
Jundi said the hospital has been flooded with injured people and has not been able to take in all of them because it lacks proper medical equipment to treat them. "We are treating the injured in the corridors of the hospital, outside on the ground, anywhere we can find space," he said.
Horrific pictures and videos – initially shared by activists to a number of journalists on a private WhatsApp group – have been posted on Twitter and Facebook.
Al-Jundi told BuzzFeed News that following the alleged chemical attack, fighter jets targeted the headquarters of the Syria Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, in Khan Sheikoun and the Al Rahma hospital. Images online showed volunteers from the White Helmets assisting the victims, and washing the children with water as they were brought in after the attack.
The director of the White Helmets in Khan Sheikhoun, who requested anonymity for his safety, said the group’s office, where they had been receiving injured residents, was hit at least seven times during the attack. He said the volunteers have been driving the wounded out of the town to nearby hospitals.
“It’s so hard to picture what happened. Mostly it’s a state of loss and chaos. Everyone is feeling lost,” said Hadi al Abdullah, a Syrian journalist who went to report from the site of the the attack in Khan Sheikhoun, told BuzzFeed News. Abdullah said four separate rockets were launched by the aircraft on Tuesday morning. “The fourth one was the chemical one, which caused all the scourge,” he added.
Abdullah said fighter jets then bombed the Syria Civil Defense Center as he was interviewing White Helmet volunteers. “Thank god, it was sort of under the ground, so we didn’t get hurt, but the whole center is now out of service.” Abdullah said within the span of an hour and half they were at the center, eight bombing raids took place, targeting the area every time someone tried to leave.
Mohammad al-Salum, a Syrian activist from Khan Sheikhoun, said three bombs struck the area on Monday. "I saw with my own eyes a huge explosion and after the explosion, the dust appeared low," he told BuzzFeed News via WhatsApp.
Salum said more than 400 people were affected by the attack, and women and children were among the dead. As ambulances rushed to the scene, Salum continued, they were targeted by planes flying above.
The Idlib Media Center, which is run by Syrian rebels, reported 150 cases of asphyxiation, and later claimed Russian planes had targeted medical centers near the scene of the first attack. In the hours after news of the attack broke, AFP reported that unidentified planes had bombed one of the hospitals treating the wounded.
Local activists, including the doctors who spoke to BuzzFeed News, said the fighter jets that dropped poison gases belonged to the Syrian government. Both Syria and Russia have repeatedly alleged that rebel-held Idlib province is a "hotbed for terrorism" — and have regularly and ferociously conducted airstrikes in the area.
Tuesday's attack would not be the first time regime forces have been accused of using chemical attacks against their own people, but if confirmed, it would be one of the deadliest such attacks since the Syrian conflict began in 2011.
Following reports about the attack, Turkey's semi-official Anadolu Agency said President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and called the attacks were "inhuman" and "unacceptable."
In the US, Senator John McCain told CNN "we've seen this movie before," referring to the chemical attack, and labelled the American government's inaction on Syria — both under President Barack Obama and Donald Trump — as "disgraceful."
In 2013, Ghouta, a suburb in Damascus, was targeted by chemical weapons, after which US intelligence assessment placed the death toll at 1,400, according to the Washington Post. It was the largest chemical attack since the Iran–Iraq War, and provoked an international outcry.
In October last year, a joint investigation by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found forces allied to the Syrian government had used chemical weapons against their people at least three times between 2014 and 2015. A UN investigative panel that has been compiling evidence of human rights violations in Syria on Tuesday said that the use of chemical weapons "would amount to war crimes and serious violations of human rights law."
The OPCW said in a statement that it was "seriously concerned" about the reports of the strike in Idlib and that a fact-finding mission was gathering information. "The OPCW strongly condemns the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere and under any circumstances," the statement concluded.
The Syrian government has repeatedly denied the use of chemical weapons.
Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting from Istanbul.