A leading international human rights organization is accusing Syrian government forces of dropping banned chlorine bombs on residential areas of a key northern city at least eight times late last year.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a report issued Monday, said the chlorine attacks on Aleppo began November 17, as government forces backed by Russian airpower pushed into rebel-controlled sectors of the city. The report said it found no evidence that Russian forces backing the offensive were directly involved in the chlorine attacks.
Video embedded in the report shows an explosion from a distance and yellowish-green gas spreading from the blast site. A still photograph then shows four dead children lying side-by-side with a caption saying the toxic vapors killed an entire family. HRW says about 200 people suffered injuries.
High-level exposure to chlorine causes suffocation, but the industrial chemical has many controlled civilian uses and is not by itself illegal. However, the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria signed in 2013, bans the use of the toxic properties in any chemical as a weapon. More than 190 other nations have also signed the accord.
The report also notes that chlorine gas is heavier than air and consequently sinks into basements where Aleppo's civilians sheltered from weeks of intense bombings by Syrian and Russian warplanes.
"Each attack involved a number of canisters that were dropped often by several helicopters," said HRW's United Nations Director Louis Charbonneau. "We saw in one case three helicopters dropping two canisters of chlorine gas each, and this was used to push [advance] the frontline" as government forces moved to retake the entire city.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly denied ever using chemical weapons in its nearly six-year war against rebels, and has accused human rights monitors and Western governments of fabricating evidence implicating Damascus in such attacks.
For its part, the United Nations has been examining evidence of chemical weaponry and has so far implicated the Assad government in three chlorine attacks in 2014 and 2015. An update to the U.N. findings is expected within weeks.
HRW official Ole Solvang described the eight attacks as systematic, "coordinated with the overall military strategy of retaking Aleppo, [and] not the work of a few rogue elements." He also said the U.N. Security Council "should not allow Syrian authorities or anyone else" using such weaponry to "get away without consequences."
The report further notes that the actual number of chemical attacks between November 17 and the truce that took effect December 13 may have been higher than the eight documented in Monday's report. Other witnesses took to social media during that time to report at least 12 such bombings.