Military investigates whether Russian pilot struck hospital treating chemical-attack victims
WASHINGTON, The Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2017 — The U.S. military is trying to determine whether Russia played a role related to this week’s suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria that was the catalyst for the first American airstrikes aimed at President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, officials said Friday.
Military officials said that they have no indication that Russia was involved in the April 4 chemical attack in northwestern Syria. But they are looking into the possibility that a Russian pilot was at the controls of a plane that carried out an airstrike on a hospital where victims of the suspected chemical attack had been taken for treatment.
Any Russian role in the attack would further complicate relations between Washington and Moscow, which have been strained by the predawn U.S. strike on Shayrat Airfield in northwestern Syria.
“We have no knowledge of Russian involvement in this attack, but we will investigate any information that might lead us in that direction,” said one senior military official who briefed reporters at the Pentagon.
Russian officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Syria and Russia have rejected allegations that chemical weapons were used.
U.S. military officials said that following what they said was the initial Syrian chemical attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun, a Syrian or Russian drone flew over the area as victims were rushed to a hospital used by al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
Five hours after the initial attack, a second plane from Shayrat airfield—the base for the first attack, according to the U.S., and the target of U.S. airstrikes on Friday—hit the hospital in what may have been an attempt to hide evidence of the use of chemical weapons.
Rescuers and residents in Khan Sheikhoun said earlier this week that the field hospital had been struck by a a Syrian-regime or Russian warplane as chemical-attack victims were being treated there.
U.S. officials have been bracing for a potential battlefield backlash from Syria and Russia in response to the strike ordered by President Donald Trump in an attempt to deter Mr. Assad from using chemical weapons in his fight against rebel forces trying to push him from power.
The U.S. military said all 59 Tomahawk missiles fired by two destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea hit the Syrian airfield, rejecting reports that any of them had missed their targets or were shot down by Syrian air defenses.
The airfield strike destroyed 20 Syrian aircraft, U.S. officials said.
At least 85 people, including 27 children, were killed by the suspected Syrian chemical weapons strike April 4.
U.S. officials said they are confident that the Syrians used chemical weapons in the attack-