Syria chemical attack survivors welcome US strike



Medical staff at Damascus Countryside Specialised Hospital hold placards condemning a suspected chemical weapons attack on the Idlib province town of Khan Sheikhun, during a gathering to show solidarity with the victims in opposition-held Douma on the outskirts of Damascus on April 6th. [Sameer al-Doumy/AFP]

In the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun, residents still mourning their dead on Friday (April 7th) welcomed US strikes that came in response to a gas attack that on Tuesday killed at least 86 people, including 27 children.

More than 160 others were wounded in the chemical attack, suffering symptoms including convulsions, vomiting or foaming at the mouth.

At around 3:40 a.m. Friday, the US military fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat airbase in Homs province, which was the launchpad for the attack on the Idlib province town.

The attack was the first direct US military action against the Syrian regime since the conflict began six years ago.

The missiles were fired from the USS Porter and the USS Ross, which belong to the US Navy's 6th Fleet, in the eastern Mediterranean.

The strike targeted radars, aircraft, air defence systems and other logistical components at the base. The Pentagon said measures were taken to avoid hitting sarin gas it says was stored there.

In a statement read on state television, the Syrian army confirmed the strike and said it had caused extensive damage.

Khan Sheikhun residents react

"God willing, these strikes will be a clear warning to Bashar al-Assad, to tell him: Bashar, enough killing and injustice against these people," said Khan Sheikhun resident Abu Ali.

On Friday, the neighbourhood hit in the Tuesday attack remained empty, with survivors decamping to other parts of the opposition-held town.

Across the town, there was little foot traffic or other movement, with relatives of those who perished still receiving condolences at halls.

Amidst the quiet and the sadness, residents said they welcomed the US retaliation.

"We consider these strikes not only as a reaction, but a way to avenge the blood of the martyrs who fell here in Khan Sheikhun," said Haj Kassar, a merchant in his 50s.

"It does not deliver even a small part of the justice the martyrs deserve," added 37-year-old Abu Mohib, a Syrian army officer defector. "But it does lift the morale of the families of the dead."

If confirmed, Khan Sheikhun would be the second deadliest chemical attack in the Syrian war, after a 2013 attack believed to have killed hundreds of people in Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

In the Eastern Ghouta town of Douma, residents on Friday welcomed the US attack.

International support for strikes

In a statement issued after Friday's strikes, NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said "the Syrian regime bears the full responsibility for this development".

"Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, cannot go unanswered, and those responsible must be held accountable," he added.

In a statement posted on Twitter, EU President Donald Tusk said the "US strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria".

In a joint statement, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said al-Assad bore "sole responsibility" for the US strike.

Britain said it "fully supported" the strikes, judging them an "appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack" and saying they were "intended to deter further attacks".

Turkey also welcomed the strikes as "positive", reiterating its call for the ouster of al-Assad, and also called for a no-fly zone to be established in Syria to prevent further bloodshed.

Saudi Arabia, Japan, Canada also welcomed the Friday strikes.

Syrian opposition factions on Friday welcomed the US strikes.

Meanwhile, regime allies Russia and Iran strongly condemned the US actions, with Russia calling for an urgent UN Security Council meeting.

The UN Security Council was set to hold an open meeting on Friday at 11:30 a.m. to hear a briefing on the US military action, US diplomats said.

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