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US officials: Russian drone may have turned camera off, right before Syrian attack

David Choi
syria airstrike

(Smoke rises after strikes on rebel-held Deraa city, Syria, March 10, 2017.Reuters/Alaa Al-Faqir)
US officials say they suspect Russia may have played a role in the use of chemical weapons that killed at least 80 people in northeastern Syria earlier this week.

Russia may have been operating an unmanned drone and military aircraft in the region, according to US military officials cited by BuzzFeed News on Friday.

Two officials alleged that someone had turned the Russian unmanned drone's camera off just before a Syrian hospital was struck, suggesting the Kremlin was turning a blind-eye to the attack. The officials did not disclose how they were able to determine the camera stopped recording.  

"This is patterned behavior," Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said to BuzzFeed. "The Russians have consistently conducted precise airstrikes targeting civilian infrastructure and hospital in particular, for example in Aleppo."

The alleged sarin nerve agent attack was reported to have occurred at 6:50 a.m. local time on Tuesday after ordnance hit the road. As the agent began to spread, the nearest hospital began treating victims. However, as that was happening, officials say a Russian-made unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) began recording the scene of what they say was "clearly" a hospital.

Five hours after the initial attack, the UAV turned off its camera, and shortly afterwards, a Russian-made aircraft targeted the hospital.

"We don't have positive accountability yet, but the fact that somebody would strike the hospital, potentially to hide the evidence of a chemical attack, about five hours after ... is a question that we're very interested in," said one official.

Though the aircraft was Russian, officials say it was unclear whether Russia was wholly responsible, due to the fact that the Syrian Air Force had purchased aircraft from Russia in the past.  

Russia's Ministry of Defense referenced the chemical attack, saying that rather than dropping chemical weapons, the attack had hit "workshops, which produced chemical warfare munitions," according to BuzzFeed.

A senior military official cited by BuzzFeed said they "have no knowledge" of Russia's involvement or prior knowledge of the attack, and said they were in the process of "[investigating] any information that could lead in that direction."

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