Russia claimed on Wednesday that a Syrian military strike hit a “terrorist warehouse” that contained “toxic substances,” attempting to refute international claims that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for a suspected chemical attack in rebel-held northwest Syria on Tuesday. Dozens of people, including children, died in the attack.
“According to the objective data of the Russian airspace control, Syrian aviation struck a large terrorist warehouse near Khan Sheikhoun” in Idlib province, the Russian defense ministry said in a statement.
The compound held “a warehouse making bombs, with toxic substances,” the ministry said, adding that the “arsenal of chemical weapons” within the warehouse was intended to be transported to fighters in Iraq. It called the information “completely reliable and objective.”
It did not say if the strike was deliberate or not. Syria on Tuesday denied any use of chemical weapons, as it has done for the entirety of the six-year-long civil war. Before Tuesday’s attack, the U.N. said that the Syrian regime was responsible for at least three chemical weapons attacks against its own civilians.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) confirmed to Newsweek on Wednesday that the death toll in the suspected attack had increased to 72 killed, including 20 children. It comes after activists posted videos showing civilians struggling to breath as medics hosed them down to clear any chemical agents. The U.S. government said Tuesday it believes the chemical nerve agent sarin was used in the attack. Activists reported renewed Syrian regime airstrikes on Khan Sheikhoun on Wednesday following the incident.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov alleged that the warehouse stocked the same chemicals rebels had used in the northern city of Aleppo, which the regime recaptured in December. He said the weapons used caused similar symptoms to those seen in Khan Sheikhoun.
“The poisoning symptoms of the victims in Khan Sheikhoun shown on videos in social networks are the same as they were in autumn of the previous year in Aleppo,” he added in a statement.
He said chemical samples were provided to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, the main international chemical weapons watchdog.
But officials in several countries whose militaries operate in Syria again held the Assad regime responsible for the chemical attack, as outcry over the incident continued. The U.N. said it would hold emergency talks and Pope Francis decried the incident as an “unacceptable massacre.”
“All the evidence I have seen suggests this was the Assad regime … using illegal weapons on their own people,” said British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson ahead of a Syria aid conference in Brussels.
“What it confirms to everybody is that this is a barbaric regime which has made it impossible for us to imagine them [having] authority over Syria after this conflict,” he continued. Saying he “would like to see those culpable pay a price for this.”
Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Wednesday that top Syrian regime officials likely sanctioned the strike. They said the regime wanted to send a threatening message to rebels amid a fragile ceasefire and the government’s renewed strength after the capture of Aleppo.
Israel has regularly targeted Syrian government forces and those of its allied Shiite militia Hezbollah—which views Israel as its arch-enemy—on its northern border in the Golan Heights, a territory it captured from Syria and has occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War.
On Tuesday, the U.S., Turkey and the Syrian opposition all accused the Assad regime of carrying out the chemical weapons attack. France also called for an investigation. If confirmed, it would be the deadliest chemical weapons attack in Syria since a sarin gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in August 2013. The U.S. government estimated that the attack killed more than 1,000 people.