Turkey investigates use of chemicals in Syria

Turkey is testing blood  samples taken from Syrian casualties brought over the border  from fighting in recent days to determine whether they were  victims of a chemical weapons attack, local government and  health officials said on Wednesday.

The samples were sent to Turkey’s forensic medicine  institute after several Syrians with breathing difficulties were  brought to a Turkish hospital on Monday in the town of Reyhanli  in Hatay province along the Syrian border.

“We are taking the necessary precautions as we have received  unconfirmed information on the use of chemical weapons,”  Reyhanli Mayor Huseyin Sanverdi told Reuters.

“So far I have not received confirmation from medical  institutions but there is a possibility that the weapons were  used and we have to act with caution in case,” he said.

Sanverdi said the hospital in Reyhanli had taken emergency  measures on Monday following the claims but that those had now  been lifted. He added that Monday’s patients had been brought  from Idlib province in northern Syria.

U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday said there was  evidence that chemical weapons had been used during Syria’s two  year conflict, but that it was not yet known how the chemical  weapons were used, when they were used and who used them.

Washington has long said it views the use of chemical  weapons in Syria as a “red line”, but wary of the false  intelligence that was used to justify the 2003 war in Iraq, it  has said it wants proof before taking action.

Britain last week confirmed it had “limited but persuasive”  information showing chemical weapons use in Syria, including  sarin, evidence that the Foreign Office now says is  “physiological” – from the bodies of chemical attack victims.

A Foreign Office spokesman said it was likely that Syria,  and not the rebels, would be behind any such attack, and Britain  added that it was working with the United Nations to harden up  evidence of whether chemical weapons had been used.

Fighting in Syria, now entering its third year, has  intensified in the last month with government forces attempting  to roll back rebel advances. Some 70,000 people have now been  killed in the civil war.

Each side has blamed the other for what they both said was a  chemical attack in the city of Saraqeb in Idlib on Monday.

A senior Reyhanli health official, who spoke on condition of  anonymity, confirmed Sanverdi’s statement, saying the hospital  carried out “emergency plans from time to time”.

One hospital employee, who also declined to be named,  described how the hospital had been sealed off into the night on  Monday, with specialised emergency medical teams moving in to  take over after 13 patients from Idlib were brought in.

“We were given special apparel but it was the emergency team  which took care of those patients. Doctors suspected sarin or  mustard gas because the patients had breathing difficulties,”  the employee said.

Another hospital employee said staff were ordered to stay  back while the team intervened.

“This cannot be without reason,” the second employee said.

Wassim Taha, a Syrian doctor from the Union of Syrian  Medical Relief Organisations which runs hospitals for the Syrian  opposition, said the patients were washed at the border because  doctors feared they had come into contact with a form of gas.

A second Syrian doctor, Ubada Alabrash, who helps treat  Syrian patients at Reyhanli hospital, said they also suspected  the patients had been victims of a chemical attack because those  escorting them to the border had exhibited similar symptoms.

Alabrash said blood samples from the patients had been sent  for tests but that they had not been given the results.

“I don’t think the Turkish government would hide the results  from us, but I understand they must be careful with it because  NATO and other international bodies are also involved in this  issue,” he said.

“Now we are waiting for the blood test results from Ankara,  we have asked to be informed. We can only say after the test  results if chemical weapons were used or not.”