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Autopsies on 3 of 86 Syrians killed in mass murder in Idlib province confirm deaths caused by chemical weapons, says Turkey

Aya Fadl, lies on a bed with an oxygen mask to heal breathing difficulties following a suspected chemical attack on her town of Khan Sheikhoun, in the northern province of Idlib, Syria PICTURE: Courtesy of Aya Fadl via AP
Philip Issa and Sarah El Deeb

AUTOPSIES conducted on three Syrians brought to Turkey after the assault in Idlib province that killed 86 people show they were subjected to a chemical weapons attack, according to Turkey's justice minister.

The statement came as international outrage grew over the attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria.

In France, the country's foreign minister called for President Bashar Assad's government to be prosecuted over its alleged use of chemical weapons.

The Syrian government has denied it carried out any chemical attack on the town in Idlib.

Foreign minister Walid Moallem reiterated that stance on Thursday, telling reporters in Damascus that his government never used and will not use chemical weapons in Syria.

"The Syrian Arab Army has never used chemical weapons and will not use chemical weapons against Syrians and even against terrorists," Mr Moallem told the news conference.

In Turkey, state-run Anadolu and the private DHA news agencies quoted justice minister Bekir Bozdag as saying that "it was determined after the autopsy that a chemical weapon was used".

Turkish officials say that close to 60 victims of the attack were brought to Turkey for treatment and three of them died.

Tuesday's attack happened just 60 miles from the Turkish border, and the Turkish government - a close ally of Syrian rebels - set up a decontamination centre at a border crossing in the province of Hatay, where the victims were initially treated before being moved to hospitals.

Russia's defence ministry said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian air strike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal and munitions factory on the town's eastern outskirts.

At the Damascus press conference, Mr Moallem also echoed that statement, saying the Syrian army bombed a warehouse belonging to al Qaida's branch in Syria which contained chemical weapons.

The area of the town is difficult to access and as more time passes in the aftermath of the attack, it will be increasingly difficult to determine exactly what happened.

Turkish media have reported that World Health Organisation experts took part in the autopsies of Syrian victims conducted in a hospital in the Turkish city of Adana on Wednesday.

In France, foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for a resumption of Syrian peace talks and said he wants Assad's government prosecuted over its alleged use of chemical weapons.

He said that a new UN resolution and Syrian peace negotiations should be a top priority - not rushing into new military interventions. Mr Ayrault said that "France is still seeking to talk with its partners on the Security Council... Russia in particular".

"These crimes must not remain unpunished," he said. "One day, international justice will rule on Assad."

Russia argued at a UN Security Council meeting on Wednesday against holding Assad's government responsible for the Idlib attack.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned that the Trump administration would take action if the Security Council did not.

US President Donald Trump and other world leaders said the Syrian government was to blame, but Moscow, a key ally of Assad, said the assault was caused by a Syrian air strike that hit a rebel stockpile of chemical arms.

Early US assessments showed the use of chlorine gas and traces of the nerve agent sarin in the attack on Tuesday that terrorised Khan Sheikhoun, according to two US officials.

The effects of the attack overwhelmed hospitals around the town, leading paramedics to send patients to medical facilities across rebel-held areas in northern Syria, as well as to Turkey.

The Turkish health ministry said three victims died receiving treatment inside its borders. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group put the toll so far at 86 killed.

Victims of the attack showed signs of nerve gas exposure, the World Health Organisation and Doctors Without Borders said, including suffocation, foaming at the mouth, convulsions and constricted pupils. Paramedics were using fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims.

Medical teams also reported smelling bleach on survivors of the attack, suggesting chlorine gas was also used, Doctors Without Borders said.

The scene of the attack was reminiscent of a 2013 nerve gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead and prompted an agreement brokered by the US and Russia to disarm Assad's chemical stockpile.

Western nations blamed government forces for that attack, where effects were concentrated on opposition-held areas.

Mr Moallem said Damascus needs assurances that any fact-finding mission into Idlib's attack would be impartial and not politicised.

He said Syria's experience with past missions is "not encouraging".

He told a press conference that any investigative mission would need to take off from Damascus and be far from the sphere of Turkish influence.

Mr Moallem was asked if Syria would accept an international investigation. He said that "when we are sure we have convincing answers to these questions, we will give you an answer".

He also said that Syria provides the United Nations with intelligence about the transport of chemical weapons by "terrorists" between Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin said differences with Washington over the use of chemical weapons in Syria are unlikely to worsen US-Russia relations.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, warned the West against rushing to blame Assad for the attack. He said the West lacks objective evidence against Assad.

Mr Peskov said that Russia believes "that the use of chemical weapons is absolutely inadmissible". He added that the Syrian army must act to "prevent any chemical agents that can be used as weapons from falling into the terrorists' hands".

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