Russia blames deadly Syrian gassing on rebels' own chemical arsenal

Russia on Wednesday blamed the poisonous gas contamination that activists say killed at least 83 people — including 25 children — on a leak from a chemical weapons cache hit by Syrian government air strikes.

The alleged gas attack in Idlib province, documented in horrific images that NBC News has not verified, would mark one of the worst incidents of its kind in Syria's six-year civil war.

The U.S. has said the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad was responsible for the incident, which relief agency UOSSM says injured at least 350.

However, Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konoshenkov said Tuesday morning's deadly leak came from a rebel "chemical warfare munitions" workshop that had been struck.

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ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH People stand near a dead body, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask as another one receives treatments, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
A man breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH Men stand near dead bodies, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / A Syrian child receives treatment at a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following an attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A man holds an injured baby inside a Turkish ambulance as injured Syrian people enter into Turkey from the Cilvegozu border gate in Hatay province, near the Syrian border on April 4, 2017. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A wounded kid receives medical treatment at sahra hospital after Assad Regime forces's attack with chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Abdulghani Arian/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A woman gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATH A man carries the body of a dead child, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A crater is seen at the site of an airstrike, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Turkish officials with chemical clothes carry a injured man on April 4, 2017 in Hatay province, near the Syrian border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on April 4, 2017 condemned a suspected chemical attack in northwestern Syria as an 'inhuman' strike that could endanger peace talks based in the Kazakh capital. / AFP PHOTO / DOGAN NEWS AGENCY / - / Turkey OUT (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
EDITORS NOTE: Graphic content / Bodies lie in the parking area of a hospital in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack on April 4, 2017. A suspected chemical attack killed at least 58 civilians including several children in rebel-held northwestern Syria, a monitor said, with the opposition accusing the government and demanding a UN investigation. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour (Photo credit should read OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images)
IDLIB, SYRIA - APRIL 4: A child gets treatment at a hospital after Assad Regime forces attacked with suspected chlorine gas to Khan Shaykhun town of Idlib, Syria on April 4, 2017. (Photo by Bahjat Najar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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"Syrian aviation made a strike on a large terrorist ammunition depot and a concentration of military hardware in the eastern outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun town," he said in a video statement, referring to the rebel-held town in northern Syria where the deaths occurred.

He said "chemical-laden weapons" made by rebels at the site had previously been used by militants in Iraq — an apparent reference to a report last month from the International Committee of the Red Cross that toxic agents had been used in fighting near Mosul.

Russia is a key supporter of Assad, who has been fighting rebels trying to unseat him for more than six years. Konoshenkov also claimed chemical munitions had been used by rebels in Aleppo last year.

Related: Syrian Government Blamed for Third Chemical Attack: Report

Syria's government said it was complying with the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans such instruments of war, according to SANA, the Syrian state-run news agency. Instead, the government blamed rebels — that it refers to as "armed terrorist organizations" — for the attack.

"The Syrian Arab republic stresses that all those fabricated allegations will not prevent it from continuing its war on terrorism ... and from working for a political solution to the crisis in Syria," SANA reported.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday condemned the "horrendous attacks" in Idlib. "This is the third report of the use of these barbaric weapons in the last month alone. All those responsible must be held to account," he said in a statement.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which monitors the chemical weapons treaty, said it had set up a fact-finding mission to get to the bottom of Tuesday's attack.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said the attack clearly used banned chemical weapons.

Tillerson noted that the attack was the third time such weapons are alleged to have been used this month, charging: "It is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism.

"Those who defend and support him, including Russia and Iran, should have no illusions about Assad or his intentions," Tillerson said in a statement. "Anyone who uses chemical weapons to attack his own people shows a fundamental disregard for human decency and must be held accountable."

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