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50 Syrians treated in suspected gas attack; rebels deny involvement

50 Syrians treated in suspected gas attack; rebels deny involvement
A woman receives treatment after a suspected poison gas attack on her town of Khalidiya in Syria's Aleppo province on Nov. 24, 2018. (SANA)

At least 50 civilians were being treated Saturday following a suspected poison gas attack in government-held Aleppo in northern Syria, according to reports in Syrian state media.

The state media said the attacks were carried out by Syrian rebel groups. Rebel commanders and opposition figures denied lobbing gas into Aleppo and accused the government of seeking to undermine an existing cease-fire and efforts to kick-start political talks. Earlier Saturday, government shelling of a rebel-held area in neighboring Idlib province killed at least seven civilians.

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Most of those admitted to hospitals in Aleppo on Saturday 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 the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In Aleppo, Gov. Hussein Diab visited the injured at the hospital. He told state TV that 41 people had been admitted and accused rebels of using poisonous gas in missiles they lobbed at an Aleppo neighborhood.

Health official Haj Taha later said the number of injured was up to 50, adding that symptoms suggest the gas used was chlorine. Further tests were needed, he said.

The projectiles landed in the Khalidiya neighborhood, and wind caused gas to spread, Aleppo Police Chief Essam Shali told state TV. There were no deaths, 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," said the patient, who would not give his name.

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

A cease-fire 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 counter-attacks on rebel-held areas in the Aleppo countryside.

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

Opposition fighters don't have chemical weapons, rebel commander Abdel-Salam Abdel-Razek said. On Twitter, he accused the government of staging the attack to frame the rebels.

Rebel spokesman Musafa Sejari said the government is seeking to undermine the cease-fire deal.

In the absence of independent monitors, it is difficult to corroborate gas attacks. 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 in which about 100 people were killed. The U.S. launched a series of strikes on Syrian government sites in retaliation for the attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

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The U.N.-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 that killed 25 people in Khan Assal, a village outside Aleppo.

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