Rebels cling on to Qusayr

A Syrian army soldiers holds up his weapon during a battle against opposition fighters in the city of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province: Syria: rebels cling on to Qusayr

A Syrian army soldiers holds up his weapon during a battle against opposition fighters in the city of Qusayr, in Syria’s central Homs province Photo: AFP/GETTY

By , Beirut and Magdy Samaan and Richard Spencer in Cairo

6:00PM BST 28 May 2013

A major assault by Syrian regime troops and fighters from the Lebanese Shia militia Hizbollah has failed to dislodge rebels from the key town of Qusayr, 10 days after it began, accounts and videos from both sides suggest.

The Assad regime predicted a speedy victory after it attempted to storm Qusayr near the Lebanese border a week last Sunday, claiming to have almost immediately taken 80 per cent of the town.

Videos posted from the rebel side in recent days suggest that in fact they are now tied down in the east side of Qusayr and on the outskirts elsewhere. Accosrding to their own and Hizbollah accounts, the attack was stymied by Syrian rebels who booby-trapped the town’s entrances and emerged from tunnels to ambush attackers who thought they had fought their way to the centre.

“The revolutionary fighters are still holding the town, except the area of the security buildings on the east side, which represents around 20 per cent,” a rebel spokesman, Hadi al-Abdullah, said from inside the town. “We are still standing despite the tight siege. The Hizbollah fighters are not familiar with the entrances and exits, and that allowed us to trap them in ambushes.”

His account appeared to be corroborated by recent videos taken of regime frontlines in recognisable areas and posted online.

Parts of his account have been also confirmed by interviews given by Hizbollah to journalists in Lebanon.

The fight for Qusayr has become a key battle, with the regime determined to cut off what has been used as a supply way-point from a Sunni district of north-east Lebanon for rebels operating throughout Homs province.

Gen Selim Idris, the head of the Revolutionary Military Council, yesterday warned Hizbollah that it had “24 hours to withdraw from Syria” saying they would “take all measures to hunt Hizbollah, even in hell”.

Earlier, three Lebanese soldiers were killed near the border close to Qusayr, while nine rockets fired in two days at a Hizbollah-controlled town in Lebanon, Hermel, killed one woman and injured seven others.

Inside Qusayr, rebels are prepared to admit that Hizbollah and the regime have made some slow advances. Omar al-Homsi, a defected regime soldier fighting with the opposition, said he had heard regime troops arresting residents as they moved from house to house over intercepted walky-talky messages.

Hadi al-Abdullah said two FSA fighters and two civilians were killed on Tuesday morning, but added that for the first time a gap in the encirclement of the town had opened up, allowing them to evacuate several hundred non-combatants.

Nonetheless, there remains up to 20,000 civilians inside the town, according to other rebels. Video shows a number of children, including a baby, being treated for shellfire injuries.

The rebels are now relying on relief from a force of men sent down from Aleppo. But just as the pro-Assad forces are stuck on the outskirts of town, the rebel reinforcements are stuck on the outer perimeter of the regime’s encirclement.

“There are FSA battalions trying to enter the city but they still can’t,” Hadi al-Abdullah said. “There is no presence of Asaad troops in Qusayr – they withdrew completely three days ago. Now Hizbollah is in complete charge of operations.”

Tough Times in Crucial Border Town Qusayr

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By Erika Solomon

BEIRUT | Thu May 30, 2013 10:20am BST

(Reuters) – Syrian rebels pleaded for military and medical aid in the embattled border town of Qusair on Thursday, saying they were unable to evacuate hundreds of wounded under an onslaught from government forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

President Bashar al-Assad launched an offensive to capture Qusair two weeks ago in what many see as a bid to cement a hold on territory from the capital Damascus up to his Alawite community heartland on the Mediterranean coast.

“We have 700 people wounded in Qusair and 100 of them are being given oxygen. The town is surrounded and there’s no way to bring in medical aid,” said Malek Ammar, an opposition activist in the besieged town.

Rebels in Qusair sent out an appeal for support using social media outlets, saying the town near the Syrian-Lebanese border – straddling supply lines critical to both sides in Syria’s civil war – could be devastated.

“If all rebel fronts do not move to stop this crime being led by Hezbollah and Assad’s traitorous army of dogs…, we will soon be saying that there was once a city called Qusair,” the statement said.

Syria’s two-year old conflict began as a peaceful protest movement but evolved into an armed insurrection after a violent security crackdown on demonstrators. More than 80,000 people have been killed and the violence is now stoking political and sectarian tensions in neighbouring countries.

Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah is believed to have committed hundreds of guerrilla fighters, many of them with battle experience from a 2006 war with Israel, to help its ally Assad secure Qusair.

BOMBARDMENT

Fighters in Qusair said they were hearing at least 50 shells crashing every hour. Hezbollah and Syrian government forces appeared to be advancing more quickly after seizing the nearby Dabaa air base on Wednesday.

The Qusair fighting has intensified already simmering sectarian tensions. The rebels are mostly from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority while minorities have largely backed Assad, himself from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Rebel units from different parts of Syria have said for days that they have sent fighters to support the opposition in Qusair, but rebels inside say none have made it into the town.

You Tube videos published by several units suggest some brigades have arrived around the outskirts of Qusair, a town of 30,000, but not advanced further.

Ahmad Bakar, a doctor in a hospital near Qusair, posted on appeal on Facebook for rebels to rush to help.

“We need immediate intervention from outside battalions. I swear to God no supplies have gotten through to us and we need a route to be opened to evacuate the wounded an civilians.”

Thousands of civilians are believed to have fled Qusair before the offensive began – Assad’s forces distributed leaflets by plane saying they would be attacking the town.

Some activists estimate Qusair’s civilian population was at about 20,000 when the offensive began.

“What we need them to do is come to the outskirts of the city and attack the checkpoints so we can get routes in and out of the city. Most of Qusair is surrounded,” said the activist Ammar, speaking by Skype from the town.

Among those who have come to try to help Qusair are fighters from radical Sunni Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is linked to al Qaeda.

Sunni rebel groups have threatened to commit sectarian revenge massacres in Shi’ite and Alawite towns both in Lebanon and Syria in retaliation for Hezbollah’s participation in the Qusair attack. They see the battle-hardened Hezbollah’s role as critical to Assad’s battlefield strength.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

source:

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/05/30/uk-syria-crisis-qusair-idUKBRE94T08Y20130530

EU Lifts Arms Embargo, Russia Keeps Supplying Arms as the Killing Goes On

ImageRussia says it will go ahead with deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, and that the arms will help deter foreign intervention.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the missiles were a “stabilising factor” that could dissuade “some hotheads” from entering the conflict.

Russia also criticised an EU decision not to renew an arms embargo on Syria.

Meanwhile, the BBC has heard evidence that 200 people were killed in a massacre in western Syria this month.

Opposition activists said they had documented the civilian deaths in al-Bayda and Baniyas after government troops and militias entered the towns.

Continue reading the main story

Analysis

image of Jim MuirJim MuirBBC News

While the lifting of the EU arms embargo is theoretically good news for the fractious Syrian opposition, it is clearly going to be some time before it has any effect on the battlefield balance. Its authors hope the decision itself will send a strong enough signal to the Assad regime that it is time to hand over power.

That is extremely unlikely. It is hard facts on the ground that count, for a regime that has shown every sign of determination to fight to the end to stay in power. While European arms supplies remain for the moment theoretical, the step has stirred an angry reaction – possibly even an escalation – from the Russians.

They’ve said the move has jeopardised efforts to convene a peace conference, and that they plan to honour a prior contract to supply Syria with advanced S-300 air defence missiles. Israel sees that as a threat to its own security, and has warned that it “would know what to do.”

As the Syrian conflict deepens, the stakes are clearly getting higher by the day. But for the rebels at least the eventual possibility of carefully-controlled arms deliveries is there, in what looks like being a bloody, long-haul struggle.

‘We know what to do’

Mr Ryabkov said the contract for the S-300 missile systems had been signed several years ago.

“We consider these supplies a stabilising factor and believe such steps will deter some hotheads from considering scenarios that would turn the conflict international with the involvement of outside forces,” he was quoted as telling journalists.

Russia’s envoy to Nato, Aleksandr Grushko, said Moscow was acting “fully within the framework of international law”, in delivering the arms.

“We are not doing anything that could change the situation in Syria,” he said. “The arms that we supply are defensive weapons.”

The BBC’s Jim Muir in Beirut says the Russian statement could be seen as an escalation. He says there had been reports that Moscow was holding back on delivering the arms, in exchange for an Israeli commitment not to carry out further air raids over Syria.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said the Russian missile systems had not yet left Russia.

“I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do,” he said.

Russia has repeatedly blocked efforts to put more pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Along with the US, it has been leading efforts to organise an international peace conference on Syria next month.

The Syrian opposition has not said whether to attend the conference, and was locked in talks in Istanbul, Turkey, as an unofficial deadline to decide on its attendance passed.

‘Clear signal’

On Monday, the EU said member states would be able to decide their own policy on sending arms to Syria, after foreign ministers were unable to reach the unanimous decision required to extend the current arms embargo past Saturday.

However, in a declaration announced after 12 hours of talks, it agreed not to “proceed at this stage with the delivery” of equipment.

The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council is to review this position before 1 August, in light of fresh developments to end the conflict including the ongoing US-Russia peace initiative.

The EU embargo, first imposed in May 2011, applies to the rebels as much as the Syrian government.

Britain and France had been pressing for the ability to send weapons to what they call moderate opponents of President Assad, saying it would push Damascus towards a political solution to the two-year conflict.

Syria’s Russian-made military

  • Nearly 5,000 tanks; 2,500 infantry fighting vehicles; 2,500 self-propelled or towed artillery units
  • 325 Tactical aircraft; 143 helicopters
  • Nearly 2,000 air defence pieces
  • 295,000 active personnel; 314,000 reserve personnel

Statistics: IISS

Other EU states had opposed sending arms.

A spokesman for UK Prime Minister David Cameron said the decision sent an unambiguous message to President Assad.

“We are sending a signal loud and clear to the regime and being very clear about the flexibility we have if the regime refuses to negotiate,” he said.

George Jabboure Netto, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council said the dropping of the arms embargo was a “step in the right direction”, though a spokesman for another grouping, the Syrian National Coalition, said the move might be “too little too late”.

Mr Ryabkov said Russia was disappointed by the decision. “This directly harms the prospects of convening an international conference,” he said.

More than 80,000 people have been killed and 1.5 million have fled Syria since the uprising against Mr Assad began in 2011, according to UN estimates.

Syrian opposition calls upon rebel fighters to save embattled Qusair

 

Syrian National Coalition urges disparate groups of fighters to head to city under assault from Assad and Hezbollah forces

Qusair
Syrian civilians search for survivors in Qusair after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Reuters

Syria‘s main opposition alliance has urged fighters from around the country to reinforce a rebel-held city under attack by government troops and Hezbollah militants.

The Syrian National Coalition (SNC) sought to bolster on Wednesday embattled rebel fighters in Qusair, who for a fourth day in a row came under fierce assault from forces loyal to the Assad regime. The city, which is near the border with Lebanon, lies at the heart of a government offensive to secure a strip of land running from the capital, Damascus, to the Mediterranean coast.

The Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah has been fighting alongside Syrian regime forces in the city and surrounding areas in Homs province for weeks.

Forces from outside Syria aim to destroy Qusair and rebels should join the fight to rescue the city, George Sabra, acting head of the SNC, said. He also urged Lebanese authorities to respect Syria’s sovereignty and prevent foreign gunmen from crossing the border to fight in the civil war.

The SNC has no control over the assorted groups of rebels fighting in Syria, and it was unclear what impact, if any, Sabra’s appeal would have.

But an amateur video released by the Aleppo Media Centre showed what it said were dozens of members of al-Tawhid Brigade from the northern city heading to Qusair to help. The rebels were driving pickup trucks, cars and trucks, some of them mounted with anti-aircraft guns.

Opposition fighters in Qusair were holding out on Wednesday, but appeared to be under increasing strain as government tanks, artillery and warplanes pounded the city.

An official from the Homs governor’s office said about 80% of Qusair was in government hands. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had discovered tunnels that linked areas of the city, and that the fighting was now concentrated in the north-west Qusair where the “terrorists” were still entrenched. His comments could not be independently verified because Damascus bans independent media access to much of Syria.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group, said Assad forces and Hezbollah units were bombarding Qusair with rockets on Wednesday. A group of rebels trying to reach the city from the nearby town of Ind Shamseen were ambushed by Syrian troops, killing at least two, he said.

A video released by activists on Tuesday showed destruction in several areas in the city as well as heavy damage to the minaret of its grand mosque. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded with Associated Press’s reporting of the events depicted.

Hezbollah’s role in the fighting has increased up tensions in Lebanon, which has been on edge of conflict since the Syrian war began in 2011. Lebanon and Syria share a complex web of political and sectarian ties and rivalries.

Supporters of Hezbollah funeral in SidonSupporters of Hezbollah and relatives of Saleh Ahmed Sabagh, a member of the group, carry his coffin through Sidon, southern Lebanon, on Wednesday. Photograph: Ali Hashisho/Reuters

In an hour-long standoff on Wednesday, dozens of supporters of hardline Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir blocked the road leading to a cemetery in the southern city of Sidon to prevent the burial of a Hezbollah fighter who died recently in Qusair.

There was fighting in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli between supporters and opponents of Assad as well on Wednesday. Lebanese security officials said at least 10 people, including two soldiers, have been killed and more than 100 wounded since Sunday in Tripoli.

source:

  • Associated Press in Beriut
  • guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 22 May 2013 18.45 BST

UN Phillipino Peacekeepers released by Syrian Freedom Fighters

See they do nice things as well as eat their enemies hearts :p

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Rebels who held 21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers in Syria put blankets on their hostages to help them sleep through the cold nights and a rebel commander became visibly emotional when his group released the men, a U.N. peacekeeping official said Sunday.

Despite the good treatment they got from the insurgents fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, the peacekeepers were relieved to have survived the four-day ordeal unscathed and were thankful for U.N. and Philippine government efforts that set them free, said Philippine army Col. Cirilito Sobejano, who is the chief of staff of the U.N.’s monitoring mission in the Golan Heights.

The unarmed Filipino army soldiers, who were riding in trucks, were abducted by anti-Assad gunmen after providing water and food to other peacekeeping troops Wednesday in southern Syria near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. After tough negotiations, they were freed Saturday on Jordan’s border and taken to a hotel in the Jordanian capital of Amman, Philippine officials said.

A medical checkup showed the released hostages were all in good health.

“They were in high spirits. We were laughing about their experiences,” Sobejano told The Associated Press by telephone from Amman. “They had a cordial relationship with their captors, who put blankets on them because it was very cold at night.”

“When they were handed over in Jordan, a rebel commander got visibly sad,” he said. “They were really treated as guests.”

At the Amman hotel, the peacekeepers were welcomed with a “boodle fight” — a Philippine military mess-hall style of eating, where food is usually laid out on banana leaves atop a long table and soldiers eat with their hands, said army Col. Roberto Arcan, who heads the military’s peacekeeping operations center in Manila.

Arcan said he talked by phone with one of the freed peacekeepers, army Maj. Dominador Valerio, who asked him to “please tell my wife I’m OK,” Arcan said, adding he immediately relayed the good news to the officer’s wife.

Raul Hernandez, spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, said Sunday that the plan was for the 21 peacekeepers to stay in Jordan for two days before they return to the Golan Heights.

source: usa today

Russia Plays it’s Hand in the Arms Debate

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By Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt
 
WASHINGTON — Russia has sent advanced antiship cruise missiles to Syria, a move that illustrates the depth of its support for the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad, American officials said Thursday.

Russia has previously provided a version of the missiles, called Yakhonts, to Syria. But those delivered recently are outfitted with an advanced radar that makes them more effective, according to American officials who are familiar with classified intelligence reports and would only discuss the shipment on the basis of anonymity.

Unlike Scud and other longer-range surface-to-surface missiles that the Assad government has used against opposition forces, the Yakhont antiship missile system provides the Syrian military a formidable weapon to counter any effort by international forces to reinforce Syrian opposition fighters by imposing a naval embargo, establishing a no-fly zone or carrying out limited airstrikes.

“It enables the regime to deter foreign forces looking to supply the opposition from the sea, or from undertaking a more active role if a no-fly zone or shipping embargo were to be declared at some point,” said Nick Brown, editor in chief of IHS Jane’s International Defense Review. “It’s a real ship killer.”

Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior American intelligence official, said Syria’s strengthened arsenal would “tend to push Western or allied naval activity further off the coast” and was also “a signal of the Russian commitment to the Syrian government.”

The disclosure of the delivery comes as Russia and the United States are planning to convene an international conference that is aimed at ending the brutal conflict in Syria, which has killed more than 70,000. That conference is expected to be held in early June and to include representatives of the Assad government and the Syrian opposition.

Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly said that it is the United States’ hope to change Mr. Assad’s “calculations” about his ability to hold on to power so that he will allow negotiations for a political solution to the conflict. Mr. Kerry indicated that he had raised the issue of Russian arms deliveries to Syria during his recent visit to Moscow, but declined to provide details.

“I think we’ve made it crystal clear we would prefer that Russia was not supplying assistance,” he said. “That hasn’t changed.”

American officials have been concerned that the flow of Russian and Iranian arms to Syria will buttress Mr. Assad’s apparent belief that he can prevail militarily.

“This weapons transfer is obviously disappointing and will set back efforts to promote the political transition that is in the best interests of the Syrian people and the region,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement on Thursday night. “There is now greater urgency for the U.S. to step up assistance to the moderate opposition forces who can lead Syria after Assad.”

Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the committee chairman, added in a statement, “Russia is offering cover to a despotic ruler and defending a bankrupt regime.”

Syria ordered the coastal defense version of the Yakhont system from Russia in 2007 and received the first batteries in early 2011, according to Jane’s. The initial order covered 72 missiles, 36 launcher vehicles, and support equipment, and the systems have been displayed in the country.

The batteries are mobile, which makes them more difficult to attack. Each consists of missiles, a three-missile launcher and a command-and-control vehicle.

The missiles are about 22 feet long, carry either a high-explosive or armor-piercing warhead, and have a range of about 180 miles, according to Jane’s.

They can be steered to a target’s general location by longer-range radars, but each missile has its own radar to help evade a ship’s defenses and home in as it approaches its target.

Two senior American officials said that the most recent shipment contained missiles with a more advanced guidance system than earlier shipments.

Russia has longstanding interests in Syria, including a naval base at the Mediterranean port of Tartus.

 Video: Obama with Turkey’s PM: ‘We both agree Assad needs to go’ (on this page)

As the Syria crisis has escalated, Russia has gradually augmented its naval presence in the region. In January, more than two dozen Russian warships sailed to the Black and Mediterranean Seas to take part in what the Defense Ministry said was to be the country’s largest naval exercise in decades, testing the ships’ ability to deploy outside Russian waters.

A month later, after the Black Sea exercises ended, the Russian Defense Ministry news agency said that four large landing vessels were on their way to operations off the coast of Syria.

“Based on the results of the navy exercises in the Black and Mediterranean seas,” the ministry said at the time, “the ministry leadership has taken a decision to continue combat duty by Russian warships in the Mediterranean.”

Russia’s diplomatic support of Syria has also bolstered the Assad government.

At the United Nations, the Russians recently blocked proposals that the Security Council mount a fact-finding trip to Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon to investigate the burgeoning flood of refugees, according to Western diplomats.

Jordan had sought the United Nations visit to make the point that the refugee situation was a threat to stability in the region, but Russia said that the trip was beyond the mandate of the Security Council, diplomats said.

Story: Entire families executed in ruthless Syrian massacre

When allegations that the Assad government had used chemical weapons surfaced, Russia also backed the Syrian government’s refusal to allow the United Nations to carry out a wide-ranging investigation inside Syria — which Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said was an attempt to “politicize the issue” and impose the “Iraqi scenario” on Syria.

Russian officials have repeatedly said that in selling arms to Syria, they are merely fulfilling old contracts. But some American officials worry that the deliveries are intended to limit the United States’ options should it choose to intervene to help the rebels.

Russia, for example, previously shipped SA-17 surface-to-air missiles to Syria. Israel carried out an airstrike against trucks that were transporting the weapons near Damascus in January. Israel has not officially acknowledged the raid but has said it is prepared to intervene militarily to prevent any “game changing” weapons from being shipped to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.

More recently, Israeli and American officials have urged Russia not to proceed with the sale of advanced S-300 air defense weapons. The Kremlin has yielded to American entreaties not to provide S-300s to Iran. But the denial of that sale, analysts say, has increased the pressure within Russia’s military establishment to proceed with the delivery to Syria.

This story, “Russia Sends More Advanced Missiles to Aid Assad in Syria,” first appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

More Evidence of Chemical Attacks by Alawite Shi’a Regime Emerges

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A correspondent who visited the northern town of Saraqeb was told by eyewitnesses that government helicopters had dropped at least two devices containing poisonous gas.

The government has vehemently denied claims it has used chemical agents.

The US had warned that such a development would be a “red line” for possible intervention.

President Barack Obama said he had seen evidence of chemical weapons being used in Syria – but it was important to get more specific information about what happened.

In a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington, he said all options, both diplomatic and military, were being considered.

The two leaders reaffirmed their support for Syria’s opposition and their demands for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down.

“There’s no magic formula for dealing with an extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria’s,” Mr Obama said.

“If there was, I think the prime minister and I would already have acted upon it and it would already be finished.”

Meanwhile UK Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated that Syria must allow access to a UN team to investigate the chemical weapons claims.

‘Suffocating smell’

“Start Quote

We were taken to Maryam Khatib’s house by one of her nephews. He showed us where the device is said to have landed. A small hole has been smashed into the tiled floor, a pair of disposable surgeon’s gloves lie abandoned nearby. The plants around the site appear to have withered and died, showing signs of possible contamination”

On 29 April, Saraqeb, a town south-west of Aleppo, came under artillery bombardment from government positions.

Doctors at the local hospital told the BBC’s Ian Pannell they had admitted eight people suffering from breathing problems. Some were vomiting and others had constricted pupils, they said. One woman, Maryam Khatib, later died.

A number of videos passed to the BBC appear to support these claims, but it is impossible to independently verify them. Test are being carried out in France, the UK and Turkey on samples from the site of the attack.

Mrs Khatib’s son Mohammed had rushed to the scene to help his mother and was also injured in the attack.

“It was a horrible, suffocating smell. You couldn’t breathe at all. You’d feel like you were dead. You couldn’t even see. I couldn’t see anything for three or four days,” Mr Khatib told the BBC.

A doctor who treated Mrs Khatib said her symptoms corresponded with organophosphate poisoning and that samples had been sent for testing.

Mohammed Khatib receiving treatment
 
Mohammed Khatib says he was badly affected by the attack

One device was said to have landed on the outskirts of Saraqeb, with eyewitnesses describing a box-like container with a hollow concrete casing inside.

In another video, a rebel fighter holds a canister said to be hidden inside the devices. Witnesses claim there were two in each container.

Another video shows parts of a canister on the ground, surrounded by white powder.

The BBC has been told that samples from the scene and from the alleged victims have been sent to Britain, France, Turkey and America for testing.

Competing claims

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer at the UK’s Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Regiment, said the testimony and evidence from Saraqeb was “strong, albeit incomplete”.

 

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, chemical weapons expert: “I gauge that they’re not making it up”

In Saraqeb and in three similar events in Syria in recent weeks, “people have got ill and died and their symptoms are what we would expect to see from a nerve type of agent, be it sarin or be it organophosphate,” Mr de Bretton-Gordon said.

On the available evidence, recent attacks in al-Otaybeh to the east of Damascus, in Adra near the town of Douma, and in the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo appear “virtually identical” to what happened in Saraqeb, according to Mr de Bretton-Gordon.

Mr de Bretton-Gordon has not visited the site or tested any of the alleged evidence but was given full access to the material gathered by the BBC.

Both the US and UK have spoken of growing evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.

Rebel fighters have also been accused of using them. They also have denied this.

In March, Syria’s government and opposition called for an inquiry into an alleged chemical weapon attack in Khan al-Assal in the north of Syria which killed at least 27 people, with both sides blaming each other.

A 15-strong UN team headed by a Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom has been assembled to investigate the claims.

However, the Syrian government has refused the team access. Syrian officials have been quoted as saying they want the team to look into the incident in Khan al-Assal, but the team has requested unconditional access with the right to inquire into all credible allegations.

The UN estimates that the two-year-old conflict has left at least 80,000 people dead.

Syria map