BEIRUT – The United States fired cruise missiles into central Syria early Friday morning, striking an Assad government-controlled air base where U.S. officials say the Syrian military launched a deadly chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians earlier this week. Syrian state TV called the attack an "aggression" that lead to "losses."
About 60 U.S. Tomahawk missiles hit the Shayrat air base, southeast of Homs, a small installation with two runways, where aircraft often take off to bomb targets in northern and central Syria. The U.S. missiles hit at 3:45 a.m. Friday morning and targeted the base's airstrips, hangars, control tower and ammunition areas, U.S. officials said.
They were fired from two warships in the Mediterranean Sea, in retaliation for Tuesday's deadly chemical attack that officials said used chlorine mixed with a nerve agent, possibly sarin.
A military official quoted on Syrian TV said an air base in central Syria was hit early Friday, causing material damage. Another statement, also attributed to an unnamed official, referred to "losses." The officials did not elaborate.
Talal Barazi, the governor of Homs province, where the targeted air base is located, told The Associated Press by phone that most of the strikes appeared to target the province in central Syria. He also said the strikes are meant to "support the terrorists on the ground."
A Syrian opposition group, the Syrian Coalition, welcomed the U.S. attack, saying it puts an end to an age of "impunity" and should be just the beginning.
The bombing represents President Donald Trump's most dramatic military order since taking office. The Obama administration threatened attacking Assad's forces for previous chemical weapons attacks, but never followed through. Trump called on "all civilized nations" to join the U.S. in seeking an end to the carnage in Syria.
President Bashar Assad's government had been under mounting international pressure after the chemical attack in northern Syria, with even key ally Russia saying its support is not unconditional and the U.S. launching a barrage of cruise missiles at a government-controlled air base in Syria.
Turkey, meanwhile, said samples from victims of Tuesday's attack, which killed more than 80 people in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, indicate they were exposed to sarin, a highly toxic nerve agent.
Syria rejected the accusations, and Moscow had warned against apportioning blame until an investigation has been carried out.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday that "unconditional support is not possible in this current world."
But he added that "it is not correct to say that Moscow can convince Mr. Assad to do whatever is wanted in Moscow. This is totally wrong."
Russia has provided military support for the Syrian government since September 2015, turning the balance of power in Assad's favor. Moscow has used its veto power at the Security Council on several occasions since the civil war began six years ago to prevent sanctions against Damascus.
Syria maintains it didn't use chemical weapons, blaming opposition fighters for stockpiling the chemicals. Russia's Defense Ministry said the toxic agents were released when a Syrian airstrike hit a rebel chemical weapons arsenal and munitions factory on the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun.
"I stress, once again, that the Syrian Arab Army did not and will not use such weapons even against the terrorists who are targeting our people," Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem told reporters in Damascus.
Trump had said the attack crossed "many, many lines," and put the blame squarely on Assad's forces. Speaking Thursday on Air Force One, Trump said the attack "shouldn't have happened, and it shouldn't be allowed to happen."
Earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said he hopes Trump will take military action, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency quoted him as saying.
Erdogan said Turkey would be prepared to do "whatever falls on us" to support possible military action, the news agency reported.
U.S. officials had said they hoped for a vote late Thursday night on a U.N. Security Council resolution that would condemn the chemical attack, but with council members still negotiating the text into the evening, the British Mission's political coordinator Stephen Hickey tweeted the vote wouldn't take place until later.
At the U.N., the United States, which currently holds the presidency of the Security Council, it drafted a resolution along with Britain and France that condemns the use of chemical weapons, particularly in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, "in the strongest terms."
Russia, which has warned against fixing blame for the attack until an investigation is completed, objected to key provisions in the resolution and negotiations have been underway to try to bridge the differences.
Britain's deputy ambassador Peter Wilson said "what we want is a unanimous resolution ... and we want to see this done soon."
France's U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre indicated difficulty in reaching agreement on a resolution.
After the attack, hospitals around Khan Sheikhoun were overwhelmed, and paramedics sent victims to medical facilities across rebel-held areas in northern Syria, as well as to Turkey. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group put the death toll at 86.
The attack happened in Syria's Idlib province about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Turkish border, and the Turkish government — a close ally of Syria's rebels — set up a decontamination center at a border crossing in Hatay province, where the victims were treated initially.
Turkish officials said nearly 60 victims of the attack were brought to Turkey for treatment and three of them died.
Victims showed signs of nerve gas exposure, including suffocation, foaming at the mouth, convulsions, constricted pupils and involuntary defecation, the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders said. Paramedics used fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims.
Visuals from the scene were reminiscent of a 2013 nerve gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead.
In Turkey, Anadolu and the private DHA news agencies on Thursday quoted Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag as saying "it was determined after the autopsy that a chemical weapon was used."
The Turkish Health Ministry said later that "according to the results of the first analysis, there were findings suggesting that the patients were exposed to chemical substance (sarin)."
WHO experts took part in the autopsies in the Turkish city of Adana late Wednesday, Turkish media reported.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said it has "initiated contact" with Syrian authorities and its Technical Secretariat has been collecting and analyzing information about the allegations. "This is an ongoing investigation," it said.
The area of Khan Sheikhoun is difficult to access, and as more time passes since the attack, it will be increasingly difficult to determine exactly what happened.