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SYRIA, REBELS TRADE BLAME ON GAS

New York Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Syrian state television and antigovernment activists reported Saturday that poison gas had been used in a rebel-held village in the central province of Hama, with each side blaming its enemies for an attack they both said sickened more than 100 people.

The attack took place Friday evening in the village of Kfar Zeita, sending streams of choking patients, including children, to poorly equipped field hospitals, according to local medics and videos posted online. Opposition activists said government helicopters had dropped improvised bombs on the village, covering it with a thick smoke that smelled of chlorine.

While the opposition reported the attack soon after it happened, Syrian state television first mentioned it the day after in an urgent news banner during a broadcast. It blamed the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, for the attack, adding that two people were killed and more than 100 others affected by the gas. A subsequent banner announcement said the Nusra Front was preparing two more chemical attacks. It was the first time since last year that both sides agreed that toxic weapons had been used.

On Aug. 21, 2013, sarin gas attacks in suburbs of Damascus killed hundreds and led President Barack Obama to threaten airstrikes on Syrian government targets. The strikes were averted by a deal to dispose of Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. Western officials say there is clear evidence that the government carried out the August strikes, while the government blames insurgents.

Allegations of a new attack carry high stakes. If the government used toxic arms now, that would suggest that it felt it could act with impunity because of international reluctance to punish it militarily.

Since the Aug. 21 episode, government tactics like starving rebel areas and bombing residential neighborhoods have continued unabated, killing many more people than chemical weapons have. But the killings have produced little international response beyond a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an end to the violence and for increased access for groups providing humanitarian aid.

For the opposition, Obama's decision not to bomb Syria, after calling chemical weapons use a "red line," reinforced the feeling that the global community would do little to stop the violence.

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