People lying down
© AP
The United Nations secretariat cannot verify media reports about a chemical attack in the Syrian province of Idlib that killed dozens of people, Spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary General Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday.

"We are not currently in a position to verify the reports. I saw that earlier today the OPCW fact-finding mission has already announced that it began gathering the information to attempt to confirm the chemical weapons were used," he said.

"Any sort of report of use of chemical weapons, especially on civilians is extremely alarming and disturbing. Any use of chemical weapons anywhere constitutes a threat to peace and security and is a serious violation of international law," he stressed.

In a statement released later in the day, the United Nations Secretary General expressed profound alarm at "the reports of alleged use of chemical weapons in an airstrike in the Khan Shaykhun area of southern Idlib, Syria" and offered "heartfelt condolences to victims of the incident and their families."

He also noted that the United Nations is currently unable "to independently verify these reports" and recalled "that the Security Council previously determined that the use of chemical weapons anywhere constitutes a threat to international peace and security and, that it affirmed that the use of chemical weapons constitutes a serious violation of international law."

The news agency Reuters reported earlier on Tuesday, citing the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that an air strike by Syrian or Russian jets had allegedly killed 58 people, including 11 children, and wounded 300. As Reuters said, the air strike could have been carried out by the Syrian government forces in a suspected gas attack.

The Syrian army denied any allegations, saying "it is not using and has not used any chemical weapons."

The Russian defense ministry dismissed these allegations as fake news, saying that "Russian warplanes carried out no strikes in the Khan Shaykhun area, Idlib Governorate."

The United Nations Security Council will hold an emergency meeting on that matter on April 5 at the request of the United Kingdom and France, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who chairs the Security Council in April, said.