The two-year old conflict in Syria appears to have escalated into unprecedented violence on Tuesday following reports that one side had employed chemical weapons against the other.
Both opposition fighters and forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime accused one another of a chemical attack outside the northern city of Aleppo early Tuesday, which has served as a hub for much of the fighting. Sixteen people were killed according to some estimates and 86 were wounded in the missile attack on Khan al-Assal, according to Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi.
The White House said Tuesday afternoon it did not yet have evidence to support a chemical attack at all. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons also does not have any information of an attack.
If true, this would set a dangerous precedent for the violent rebellion that began in March 2011 and has claimed as many as 70,000 lives or more, according to some reports. The Assad regime is known to posses dangerous VX and sarin nerve gases, among other chemical weapons, and has used ballistic missiles and bombs against its own citizens.
A Reuters journalist in Aleppo reported smelling chlorine in the air after a rocket attack, according to Fox News, which reports at least 26 people were killed.
Al-Zoubi said this attack was a "serious escalation" in the conflict.
"Whoever got involved and announced direct and public military support to the terrorists, whether he was an emir, a minister or a prime minister, must be held to account for the crime," he said in a statement published through state-run Syrian Aram News Agency. The regime considers this a "dangerous shift in the course of what is taking place in Syria on the security and military levels."
Toxic gases and other materials in the rocket attack caused "fainting, quiver and death," he said, according to SANA.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the Syrian chemical weapons threat at a Monday press conference, before this latest alleged attack.
"The longer the bloodshed goes on, the greater the prospect that the institutions of the state of Syria implode, and therefore, the greater the danger is to the region and the world that chemical weapons fall into the hands of really bad actors," he said.
A spokesman for the British Foreign Office said Tuesday the U.K. is looking into the allegations.
"The use of chemical weapons would be abhorrent and would be universally condemned," the spokesman said, according to NBC. "The U.K. is clear that the use or proliferation of chemical weapons would demand a serious response from the international community and force us to revisit our approach so far."
Reuters reports a spokesman for the Russian government says it is "seriously concerned" that "weapons of mass destruction are falling into the hands of the rebels." Russia has traditionally been an ally of the Syrian regime, and has not endorsed any Western entrees to quell the violence. The composition of the Syrian rebellion remains unclear. Elements of al-Qaida affiliates, such as the al-Nusra Front, are believed to be contributing to the fighting.
This raw video posted on Tuesday purports to depict victims of a chemical attack:
Check out these unconfirmed tweets from Syrian activists of the effects of the chemical attack:
Clearly these people are sick with something that is not an outward injury, if not chemical attack then what? twitter.com/Partisangirl/s…— Partisangirl (@Partisangirl) March 19, 2013