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Russia says Syrian rebels used chlorine gas in attack that injured around 100

Rebel commanders deny claims, saying Damascus seeking to undermine ceasefire; monitor says only 31 people remain hospitalized and are not in critical condition

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows medical staff treating a boy following a suspected chemical attack on his town of al-Khalidiya, in Aleppo, Syria, Nov. 24, 2018 (SANA via AP)
This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows medical staff treating a boy following a suspected chemical attack on his town of al-Khalidiya, in Aleppo, Syria, Nov. 24, 2018 (SANA via AP)

Around 100 Syrians have been hospitalized with breathing difficulties in Aleppo, state media and a monitor said Sunday, amid allegations that rebels fired “toxic gas” into the regime-held city the previous day.

State news agency SANA reported “107 cases of breathing difficulties” in an updated toll on Sunday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said a total of 94 people were hospitalized, but most had been discharged and the 31 cases that remained were not critical.

Russia on Sunday blamed Syrian insurgents for firing shells filled with chlorine gas at Aleppo, with the Defense Ministry saying the projectiles came from an area held by the Nusra Front.

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows a man receiving oxygen through respirators following a suspected chemical attack on his town of al-Khalidiya, in Aleppo, Syria, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018 (SANA via AP)

“According to our preliminary information, confirmed in particular by symptoms of poisoning among the victims, the shells used to bombard residential areas of Aleppo were filled with chlorine [gas]” Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a statement, according to the Reuters news agency.

Rebel commander Abdel-Salam Abdel-Razak dismissed the claims, saying the opposition doesn’t possess poisonous gases or the capabilities to lob them. Abdel-Razak served in Syria’s chemical weapons program before defecting to join the opposition in the early years of the conflict.

Rebel spokesman Mustafa Sejari also denied the accusations, saying they came after government shells landed in rebel-held areas, violating a Russian-backed ceasefire. Earlier Saturday, government shelling of a rebel-held area in neighboring Idlib province killed at least seven civilians.

Most of those admitted to hospitals had breathing problems and blurred vision, doctors told state TV. One doctor said two were in critical condition, including a child. State TV showed footage of medical professionals treating men and women on hospital beds.

There was a stench of gas in Aleppo city after projectiles were fired, said Rami Abdurrahman, the head of Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syrian rebel-fighters from the National Liberation Front (NLF) take position on the frontline facing government forces in the al-Rashedin area west of Aleppo in northwestern Syria, on November 20, 2018. (Aaref WATAD / AFP)

The projectiles landed in the al-Khalidiya neighborhood, and wind caused gas to spread, Aleppo police chief Essam al-Shali told state TV. State TV later said the gas affected two other areas in the city. There are no deaths, al-Shali said.

One patient said a foul smell filled the air after projectiles were lobbed.

“There are often missiles on the city but this is the first time we smelled such a smell,” the patient said without giving his name.

State TV later said government troops retaliated, hitting the source of the attack. It didn’t elaborate.

A ceasefire in Aleppo and Idlib has been fraying in recent days. Aleppo has come under rebel attack in recent weeks, with missiles falling inside the city. The government has responded with counterattacks on rebel-held areas in the Aleppo countryside.

Earlier Saturday, rescue workers and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government shells landed in Jarjanaz, a rebel-held town in Idlib province, hitting students as they were leaving their school. The shelling killed eight, including six children, according to the civil defense team in the opposition-held area.

Photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA shows a man receiving treatment at a hospital following a suspected chemical attack on his town of al-Khalidiya, in Aleppo, Syria, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. (SANA via AP)

The opposition fighters don’t have chemical weapons or the means to lob them, rebel commander Abdel-Salam Abdel-Razek said. On Twitter, he accused the government of staging the attack to frame the rebels.

Sejari, the rebel spokesman, said the government is seeking to undermine the ceasefire deal.

In the absence of independent monitors, it is difficult to corroborate gas attacks. But both sides of the conflict have accused each other throughout the war of using poison gas.

A joint team from the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons accused Syria’s government of using chlorine gas in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015, and the nerve agent sarin in an attack in April 2017 in the town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed about 100 people. The US launched a series of strikes on Syrian government sites in retaliation for the attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

The UN-OPCW team also accused the Islamic State extremist group of using mustard gas twice in 2015 and 2016.

The government accused rebels of using gas in a 2013 attack on Khan al-Assal, a village southwest of Aleppo city, that killed 25 people.

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