By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Both sides in Syria's conflict on Wednesday demanded an international inquiry into a deadly attack they each cite as evidence that the other has used chemical weapons.
The deaths of 26 people in a rocket attack on a northern town on Tuesday have become the latest focus of a propaganda war between President Bashar al-Assad's supporters and opponents, who accuse each other of firing a missile laden with chemicals.
The United States and Russia, which back opposing sides in Syria, took contrasting views of the strike on Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo, which, if confirmed, would be the first use of chemical weapons in the two-year-old conflict.
Robert Ford, the U.S. ambassador to Damascus who left Syria more than a year ago, said his government had no evidence so far to substantiate reports that chemical weapons munitions had been used in Syria on Tuesday.
"But I want to underline that we are looking very carefully at these reports," he added, in testimony in Washington to a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on the crisis in Syria.
Ford also said there would be consequences for Syria's government if it were found to be using chemical weapons, but would not discuss what those would be.
Washington has so far shunned direct military intervention in Syria, although it says Assad must be removed from power after 43 years of his family's iron rule in the major Arab and two years after the start of an uprising against it.
Rebels might latch onto any suspicions of chemical weapons use to bolster a case for Western military intervention, although not all of Assad's opponents favor this.
Russia, citing information from the Damascus government, has accused rebels of carrying out a chemical strike.
Syria's restrictions on independent media and foreign aid groups make it hard to verify what happened, but survivors interviewed in hospitals complained of breathing difficulties.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition said it wanted an international investigation into alleged chemical attacks on Tuesday in both Khan al-Assal and Otaiba, a town near the capital Damascus.
"The Coalition would like all parties and individuals involved in this reprehensible crime to be brought to justice," it said in a statement.
Syria's Foreign Ministry has asked U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to set up an independent, neutral specialist technical team "to investigate the use of chemical weapons by the terrorists in Khan al-Assal", state television reported.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad had said on Tuesday that officials would test soil and rocket debris in Khan al-Assal and report their findings to the "relevant bodies".
HARD EVIDENCE SCARCE
The World Health Organization said it would send medical supplies to Aleppo on Wednesday but could not verify if chemical agents had been used. Experts contracted by the U.N. agency will visit Aleppo health facilities to identify immediate health needs and provide support for treatment of toxins, it said.
Syria's military has turned increasingly heavy weapons on those opposing Assad's rule, using firearms, then tanks, artillery, aircraft and long-range missiles, but it has denied it would use chemical weapons, if it had them, on its own people.
The most notorious chemical weapons attack in the Middle East was in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Halabja, where some 5,000 people died in a strike ordered 25 years ago by then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Colonial power Britain had earlier used poison gas to quell revolts in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.
But there has been little hard evidence that Tuesday's attacks involved chemical munitions, some weapons experts say.
David Friedman, a former specialist on weapons of mass destruction with Israel's Defense Ministry, said he did not believe chemical weapons had been used in the Khan al-Assal attack, citing witness testimony and television footage.
Some of those hospitalized after the attack told a Reuters photographer of a strong smell of chlorine in the air and that many victims had fallen down dead after the blast.
Friedman said a rocket might have hit chemicals stored in the area. "As for the smell of chlorine, this could have been due to the indirect explosion of something containing industrial chemicals," he argued, saying this was common in urban combat.
At least 70,000 people have been killed by conventional weapons in Syria's two-year-old conflict, but conflicting claims about chemical weapons are often bandied about.
The United States and Israel fret that Syria's presumed chemical arsenal might fall into the hands of Syrian Islamist militants fighting Assad, or be diverted to his Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah allies - fierce foes of the Jewish state.
The Syrian state news agency SANA said the government had sent two letters to the United Nations in the past voicing fears that hostile powers may supply chemical weapons to "terrorists" to fabricate claims that the government is using such arms.
The Information Ministry has also said al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front rebels had previously seized a private factory in eastern Aleppo that had tonnes of poisonous chlorine material.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Oliver Holmes in Beirut, and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
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