'Chemical weapons were used on Homs': Syria's military police defector tells of nerve gas attack

General becomes one of the most senior officers to join the rebels

The head of Syria’s military police defected to the opposition, accusing the Assad regime of systematic “murder” and claiming that reports of chemical weapons being used against rebels in the restive city of Homs were true.

Maj-Gen Abdul-Aziz Jassim al-Shallal became one of the highest ranking Syrian military officers to throw their support behind the rebels, accusing forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of turning their weapons on innocent civilians in the now 22-month-long civil war.

“I declare my defection from the army because of its deviation from its fundamental mission to protect the nation and [its] transformation into gangs of murder and destruction,” he said in a video message posted online, reportedly from the Turkish border.

He accused the military of “destroying cities and villages and committing massacres against our innocent people who came out to demand freedom.” General Shallal suggested in his message that he had been working with the opposition for some time before he formally defected to the rebel cause.

He becomes the latest in a string of leading military advisers to abandon the government and join the disparate rebels. But it is his claim that chemical weapons were used in Homs during a deadly attack on Christmas Eve that is likely to be of greater interest to the Syrian opposition and their foreign backers.

Reports from Homs had suggested that a type of nerve agent was used by the Syrian forces in the attack, a point that General Shallal appeared to verify yesterday. Al Jazeera reported at the time that at least seven people had died after inhaling a poisonous gas “sprayed by government forces in a rebel-held Homs neighbourhood”.

“We don’t know what this gas is but medics are saying it’s something similar to sarin gas,” Raji Rahmet Rabbou, an activist in Homs, told Al Jazeera.

It is not clear that the substance used in Homs was banned by international law, even the though the General yesterday specifically referred to a “chemical weapons” attack. Nonetheless, the use of non-conventional weapons is considered a “red line” by some in the international community who have been reluctant to intervene directly.

The issue of chemical weapons and their security is likely to form the basis of discussions when the UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi visits Moscow on Saturday. Russia has hitherto officially backed the Syrian government, but with recent rebel advances, particularly in Damascus, individual Russian officials have suggested that support for the Assad regime may be waning.

General Shallal said that he had been working with the opposition for some time and that plans for his formal defection had taken weeks to finalise. He suggested that several more leading officials were either  working for the rebels from within the regime or wanted to defect. An unnamed Syrian security source confirmed the defection but played down its significance, the Reuters news agency reported. General Shallal was due to retire soon and joined the uprising to “play hero”, the source is quoted as saying.

The defection came as reports emerged of women and children being killed in an attack in the northern Raqqa province. An amateur video showed the bodies of eight children and three women. Activists said the attack was in the village of Qahtaniyeh.

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