BEIRUT — Turkey's justice minister said on Thursday that results from autopsies conducted on three Syrians brought to Turkey after this week's assault in Syria's Idlib province that killed 86 people show the victims were subjected to a chemical weapons attack.
The statement came as international outrage is growing over the harrowing attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria. In France, the country's foreign minister called for President Bashar Assad's government to be prosecuted over its alleged use of chemical weapons.
The Syrian government has denied it carried out any chemical attack on the town in Idlib.
Foreign Minister Walid Moallem reiterated that stance on Thursday, telling reporters in Damascus that his government never used and will not use chemical weapons in Syria.
"The Syrian Arab Army has never used chemical weapons and will not use chemical weapons against Syrians and even against terrorists," Moallem told the news conference.
In Turkey, state-run Anadolu and the private DHA news agencies quoted Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag as saying that "it was determined after the autopsy that a chemical weapon was used."
Turkish officials say that close to 60 victims of the attack were brought to Turkey for treatment and three of them died.
Tuesday's attack happened just 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Turkish border, and the Turkish government — a close ally of Syrian rebels — set up a decontamination center at a border crossing in the province of Hatay, where the victims were initially treated before being moved to hospitals.
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 town's eastern outskirts.
At the Damascus presser, Moallem also echoed that statement, saying the Syrian army bombed a warehouse belonging to al-Qaida's branch in Syria which contained chemical weapons.
The area of the town is difficult to access and as more time passes in the aftermath of the attack, it will be increasingly difficult to determine exactly what happened.
Turkish media have reported that World Health Organization experts took part in the autopsies of Syrian victims conducted in a hospital in the Turkish city of Adana late Wednesday.
In France, Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged for a resumption of Syrian peace talks and said he wants Assad's government prosecuted over its alleged use of chemical weapons.
He told CNews television on Thursday that a new U.N. resolution and Syrian peace negotiations should be a top priority — not rushing into new military interventions. Ayrault said that "France is still seeking to talk with its partners on the Security Council ... Russia in particular."
"These crimes must not remain unpunished. ... One day, international justice will rule on Assad," Ayrault said.
Russia argued at a U.N. Security Council meeting on Wednesday against holding Assad's government responsible for the Idlib attack. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned that the Trump administration would take action if the Security Council did not.
U.S. President Donald Trump and other world leaders said the Syrian government was to blame, but Moscow, a key ally of Assad, said the assault was caused by a Syrian airstrike that hit a rebel stockpile of chemical arms.
Early U.S. assessments showed the use of chlorine gas and traces of the nerve agent sarin in the attack Tuesday that terrorized Khan Sheikhoun, according to two U.S. officials who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
The effects of the attack overwhelmed hospitals around the town, leading paramedics to send patients to medical facilities across rebel-held areas in northern Syria, as well as to Turkey. The Turkish Health Ministry said three victims died receiving treatment inside its borders. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group put the toll so far at 86 killed.
Victims of the attack showed signs of nerve gas exposure, the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders said, including suffocation, foaming at the mouth, convulsions, constricted pupils and involuntary defecation. Paramedics were using fire hoses to wash the chemicals from the bodies of victims.
Medical teams also reported smelling bleach on survivors of the attack, suggesting chlorine gas was also used, Doctors Without Borders said.
The magnitude of the attack was reflected in the images of the dead — children piled in heaps for burial, a father carrying his lifeless young twins.
The visuals from the scene were reminiscent of a 2013 nerve gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus that left hundreds dead and prompted an agreement brokered by the U.S. and Russia to disarm Assad's chemical stockpile. Western nations blamed government forces for that attack, where effects were concentrated on opposition-held areas.