(CBS) – DAMASCUS, SYRIA Syrian state media accused rebels of firing a chemical weapon for the first time on Tuesday in the north of the country, killing at least 15 people in the war-torn Aleppo province. Rebels quickly denied the report and accused regime forces of firing a chemical weapon on a long-range missile.
Neither of the accusations could immediately be verified, but a photographer for the Reuters news agency did say he had witnessed people come into hospitals with breathing problems after the attack.
The Syrian state news agency SANA said “terrorists” had fired a rocket “containing chemical materials” into the area around the village of Khan al-Assal in the northern province of Aleppo. The regime regularly uses the term terrorists to refer to rebels fighting to overthrow authoritarian President Bashar Assad.
“The rocket which was launched from Kafr Da’el in Neirab is a grave escalation,” Syrian information minister Omran al-Zubi said in a televised statement. “The terrorists used a weapon that is banned in accordance with international law.”
“The states which are arming, financing and housing the terrorists should be questioned about this crime,” added al-Zubi.
“I saw mostly women and children,” the Reuters photographer, who was not identified, told his editors. He said after visiting the University of Aleppo hospital and the al-Rajaa hospital — both in state-controlled parts of Aleppo — that victims “said that people were suffocating in the streets and the air smelt strongly of chlorine.”
SANA said at least 16 people, most of them civilians, were killed and almost 90 more wounded.
An activist in the area said rebels had recently seized much of the village of Khan al-Assal including a facility that housed a military academy.
The opposition Syrian Media Center said 20 people had died from “asphyxia and poisoning after a SCUD missile fired from Damascus struck” Khan al-Assal.
An activist in Aleppo province who identified himself as Yassin Abu Raed, not his real name, confirmed the attack and said there were at least 40 cases of suffocation in the area and several deaths.
He said it did not make sense for the rebels to fire a chemical weapon at an area they had recently seized, and accused the government instead. “Why would the Free Syrian Army bomb themselves with a chemical weapon?” he asked.
A militant with the rebel Free Syrian Army told CBS News via telephone Tuesday morning that the government’s claim of a chemical attack had made him nervous that the government itself might be poised to use its banned weapons.
There has been long-standing concerns that Syria’s chemical weapons would be used by one side or the other in the 2-year-old civil war.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said recently that the longer the war goes on, the greater the danger of its institutions collapsing and extremists getting their hands on the Arab country’s vast chemical weapons arsenal.
The reported attack was in an area just east of the city of Aleppo that had seen fierce fighting for weeks before rebels took over a sprawling government complex there last month. The facility included several military posts and a police academy that Assad’s forces have turned into a military base that regularly fires shells at nearby villages.