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US accuses Russia of lying on Syria attack to undermine truce

A Syrian woman receives treatment at a hospital in Aleppo after the attack with "toxic gas" on three districs of the government-held city, but the exact circumstances of the attack are murky and bitterly disputed
George OURFALIAN (AFP/File)

The United States accused Russia on Friday of helping fabricate a story about chemical weapons use by Syrian rebels as a pretext to undermine a shaky truce.

Russia's defense ministry said rebels fired grenades containing chlorine on November 24 on the regime-held city of Aleppo, with Syrian state media reporting that around 100 Syrians were hospitalized for breathing difficulties.

The United States said it had "credible information" that the account was false and that Russian and Syrian forces instead had fired tear gas.

"The United States is deeply concerned that pro-regime officials have maintained control of the attack site in its immediate aftermath, allowing them to potentially fabricate samples and contaminate the site before a proper investigation of it by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement.

"We caution Russia and the regime against tampering with the suspected attack site and urge them to secure the safety of impartial, independent inspectors so that those responsible can be held accountable," he said.

He said that Russia and Syria were "using it as an opportunity to undermine confidence in the ceasefire in Idlib," the last stronghold of rebels and jihadists fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia responded to the purported attack with air raids on Idlib, throwing into question a truce reached in mid-September.

The United States -- along with other Western governments, the United Nations and human rights groups -- have repeatedly pointed to chemical attacks by Assad's forces.

Hassan Ammar (AP)

A sarin gas attack in April 2017 in the town of Khan Sheikhun killed 83 people, according to the UN, leading the United States to strike a Syrian air base with cruise missiles as punishment.

Russia, the top international backer of Assad, and the Syrian government both denied the incident, saying footage of suffering victims including children was staged.

Assad has warned that rebels are staging chemical attacks in order to provoke a reaction from the US led coalition against the Syrian army.

In April, the US, Britain and France carried out a wave of punitive strikes against Assad's army in response to alleged chemical weapons attacks that President Donald Trump branded the "crimes of a monster."

Joseph Dunford, Washington's top general, said the strikes hit three targets near Damascus -- a scientific research center, a storage facility and command post -- and a chemical weapons storage facility near Homs.

The strikes had been expected since harrowing footage surfaced of the aftermath of the attack in Douma, which prompted a furious reaction from Trump.

In the days between the attack in Douma and the US-led response, Washington and Moscow clashed repeatedly in dueling statements and debates.

Moscow denied Assad had any role in the outrage, pushing a variety of alternative theories that peaked with a claim that Britain staged the event.

At the United Nations, Russia's diplomats vetoed a US motion to re-establish an international investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria that could have established blame.

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