THE HAGUE: A global watchdog raised fears Tuesday that chemical weapons may have been used in air strikes by Syrian regime loyalists near Palmyra, in an area controlled by the Islamic State group.
“The allegations regarding the use of chemical weapons in the area of (Oqayrabat), in the Hama governorate in Syria, reported by the media recently are of serious concern,” the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said in a statement.
At least 53 civilians, including 16 children, were killed Monday in air strikes targeting IS-held Oqayrabat and a string of villages nearby, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said there were cases of suffocation but could not confirm accusations of a chemical attack.
The strikes came a day after IS took back control of the ancient desert city of Palmyra, in the neighbouring province of Homs.
Abdel Rahman said he could not confirm if the strikes on the east of Hama province were carried out by Syrian or Russian warplanes.
“The OPCW through its ongoing Fact-Finding Mission continues to examine any credible reports it receives including pertinent information that might be shared by States Parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention,” the group said.
A panel set up by the United Nations, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism, has determined during a year-long probe that Syrian government forces carried out three chlorine gas attacks on villages in 2014 and 2015.
It also found that IS — which seized a large swathe of Iraq and Syria in 2014 — was behind a mustard gas attack in Syria in August 2015.
Oqayrabat lies northwest of Palmyra. Syrian government forces, backed by their Russian ally, had driven IS from Palmyra in May.
The war raging in Syria erupted in March 2011 with anti-government protests demanding the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad.
But it has since morphed into a multi-front conflict that has drawn in world powers and witnessed the rise of jihadist groups.
More than 300,000 people have been killed and millions have been forced to flee their homes.