(Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Tunisians turned out for the funeral of assassinated secular politician Mohamed Brahmi on Saturday, and called for the Islamist-led government to be toppled.
Military helicopters hovered overhead and hundreds of troops and police lined the route of a procession attended by Brahmi’s widow and son and several prominent politicians.
“The people want to topple the regime!” and “With our blood and with our souls we will sacrifice ourselves for the martyr!” people in the crowd shouted.
“Ghannouchi, assassin, criminal,” others chanted, referring to Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party that Brahmi’s family says was behind the killing.
Russia and America have been drawn into a dispute between the Syrian regime and rebel fighters over reports that chemical weapons were used in an attack on an Aleppo suburb that killed up to 25 people.
3:42PM GMT 19 Mar 2013
• Russia points finger at Syria opposition
• Attack has not been independently confirmed
• Reuters photographer: ‘The air smelled of chlorine’
Syria’s regime accused rebel fighters of firing a chemical weapon at a town in the country’s north. The regime has claimed that up to 25 people were killed in the attack but the rebels claimed only Damascus can deploy chemical weapons.
The Russian foreign ministry said it also had information showing that the rebels had carried out a chemical weapons attack.
This afternoon the White House said it was “looking carefully” at allegations that a chemical weapons attack had taken place, with a spokesman saying there was “no evidence” yet to substantiate the claim that the rebels were responsible.
Spokesman Jay Carney told reporters: “We are deeply skeptical of a regime that has lost all credibility and we would also warn the regime against making these kinds of charges as any kind of pretext or cover for its use of chemical weapons.”
He said that US President Barack Obama has warned of the consequences should chemical weapons be used in Syria, but would not elaborate on measures under consideration.
Mr Obama has previously said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line” that could trigger an American intervention.
Britain said on Tuesday it was aware of the reports, adding that the use or proliferation of chemical weapons there would demand a serious response from the international community.
But a spokesman for Syria’s rebel command said the regime had fired Scud missile equipped with a chemical warhead on the area.
A young boy is treated in an Aleppo hospital after what the Syrian government claims was a chemical weapons attack. Picture: REUTERS/George Ourfalian
The official news agency, Sana, said the attack had occurred in Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo, killing 25 people. Syria has one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons and both sides have made claim and counter-claim about use of the weapons.
“Terrorists fired a rocket containing chemical substances in the Khan al-Assal area of rural Aleppo and initial reports indicate that around 15 people were killed, most of them civilians,” Sana, the state news agency, said in an initial report. The agency later upped its report of the death toll to 25.
A spokesman for the Foreign Office said officials were investigating the claims and warned the consequences could be very serious.
“We’re aware of today’s press reports alleging that a chemical weapon was fired in the north of Syria and are looking into them.
“The use of chemical weapons would be abhorrent and universally condemned. The UK is clear that the use or proliferation of chemical weapons would demand a serious response from the international community and force us to revisit our approach so far.”
A little girl is treated in hospital in Aleppo after what the regime claimed was a chemical weapons attack. Picture: Reuters
The head of an international anti-chemical weapons body said this afternoon that he had no independent confirmation of the attack.
“I don’t think we know more than you do at the moment,” Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told a seminar in Vienna.
A Reuters photographer on the scene said the victims were sent to four hospitals in government-controlled areas of Aleppo and some were having trouble breathing.
“I saw mostly women and children,” he said. “They said that people were suffocating in the streets and the air smelt strongly of chlorine.”
“People were dying in the streets and in their houses,” he said over the phone after visiting the University of Aleppo hospital and the al-Rajaa hospital.
Medics transport a Syrian Army soldier wounded in what they said was a chemical weapon attack near Aleppo (Reuters)
Twenty-six people were killed in the rocket attack, a human rights monitoring group with a network of sources of the ground said.
“Sixteen Syrian regular army soldiers were killed in Khan al-Assal,” Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. “Ten more died in hospital but I cannot confirm if they are civilians or soldiers.”
Omran al-Zoabi, Syria’s Information Minister, said the country’s armed forces would never use internationally banned weapons.
“Syria’s army leadership has stressed this before and we say it again, if we had chemical weapons we would never use them due to moral, humanitarian and political reasons,” Mr Zoabi said in a televised news conference today.
“Our armed forces absolutely could not use, not now, nor at any time, nor in the past, any weapon banned by international law.”
Medics attend to a man at a hospital in Khan al-Assal in the northern Aleppo province (AFP/Getty Images)
He said Turkey and Qatar, which have supported rebels, bore “legal, moral and political responsibility” for the strike – a charge dismissed by a Turkish official as baseless.
The Russian foreign ministry pinned the blame for the attack on the rebels, though it was not clear if Moscow was relying on information from Syria or had independently confirmed the incident.
“According to information we are getting from Damascus, early in the morning on March 19, in Aleppo province there was a case of the Syrian opposition using chemical weapons,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The ministry said it was “seriously concerned by the fact that weapons of mass destruction have fallen into the hands of the rebels, which even further complicates the situation in Syria”.
The statement once again called on all sides to renounce violence and negotiate to end to the two-year conflict.
Syrian citizens carry an injured man from a damaged building that was hit by a Syrian forces airstrike in the al-Marjeh neighborhood of Aleppo (AP)
Russia is viewed as one of Syria’s closest allies and has three times blocked UN sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The allegation emerged as the Syria National Coalition (SNC) picked Ghassan Hitto, an exile who ran an IT company and was involved in Islamic activism in the US, as the prime minister charged with establishing services in the north.
An executive in the west for 25 years, Mr Hitto moved to southern Turkey late last year to head the Assistance Co-Ordination Unit, which helps move supplies from supporters to Syrian populations in “free areas” of the country.
The SNC has been under pressure from its Western and Arab backers to form an interim government that would attract weapons and humanitarian aid from the international community.
But there were divisions over the choice of Mr Hitto, who won 35 out of 49 votes recorded. SNC members unhappy about the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the exiled opposion had backed a defector with strong family ties to the regime.
The SNC leadership defended the choice of Mr Hitto, who is a member of the Kurdish minority. “This is a transparent, democratic vote,” said Moaz al-Khatib, the chairman.
Others fear his lack of military experience will perpetuate the divisions between politicans and soldiers that has granted the initiative to Islamic fundamentalists.
But the commander of the armed wing said his officers would recognise the political leadership provided by Mr Hitto.
“Any institutions not following this government would be considered to be acting illegitimately and would be prosecuted,” Gen Selim Idriss said.
Meanwhile a US official said Baghdad is “looking the other way” as Iran sends military equipment through Iraqi airspace to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime .
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, called on Iraq to randomly search Iranian planes flying to Syria, and said Washington had complained to “all levels of the Iraqi government” about the lack of inspection.
“It’s reasonable to stop the planes and inspect them,” the official said. “At least do some randomly and legitimately to see. They (Iraq) have cause to be suspicious. Instead, they are suspending their disbelief, looking the other way, and averting their gaze.”