Dozens killed in suspected chemical attack on Syrian rebel enclave | World news
Dozens of people have been killed in what local medics said was a toxic gas attack on the besieged town of Douma near Damascus. Videos and images showed bodies of dead children and other family members, some foaming at the mouth.
Rescue workers said the attack led directly to the deaths of at least 42 people, with hundreds of injured showing symptoms they said were consistent with exposure to an organophosphorus compound.
The attack on Saturday evening was the latest in a string of alleged chemical attacks in the enclave of eastern Ghouta, which has in the past been attacked with chlorine and sarin gas. It came as negotiations for the forced exile of tens of thousands of civilians and fighters from the area foundered.
“The attack was near bomb shelters and so it spread quickly in them,” said a paramedic who helped treat the latest group of victims. “The gas was concentrated and in a place where people thought they were safe.
“The wounded arrived to us with expanded irises and loss of motor control; many were suffocating because of the high concentration of the gas ... A lot of cases arrived too late.
“We sent some rescue workers to save people and four of them came back because they also suffocated, and we treated them as victims. The situation is very bad.”
Syrian state media denied claims that government forces had launched a chemical attack and said rebels in Douma were in a state of collapse and spreading false news.
The Sana news agency cited an official source as saying the rebel group Jaish al-Islam was making “chemical attack fabrications in an exposed and failed attempt to obstruct advances by the Syrian Arab army”.
On Sunday Pope Francis deplored the reported gas attack as an unjustifiable use of “instruments of extermination”.
“There is no such thing as a good war and a bad war. Nothing, but nothing, can justify the use of such instruments of extermination on defenceless people and populations,” he said at the end of a mass in St Peter’s Square.
Rescue workers said many of the victims remained where they had died because of further shelling, the penetrating odour of the toxic gas and the lack of protective gear.
They said victims showed symptoms that included suffocation, central cyanosis – a blueish discolouration of the skin – foaming, corneal burns and the emission of a chlorine-like odour.
A local journalist who was in a nearby building said: “The bombing in my area was particularly intense because there are medical points there, and the gas was dropped on a nearby building.
“The families were hysterical. I went to a medical point that is an underground hospital, and in the tunnels the dust was filling the area and there were women, children and men in the tunnels. When I arrived at the medical point it was like judgment day, people walking around in a daze, not knowing what to do, women weeping, everyone covering themselves with blankets, and the nurses running from victim to victim.
“There were entire families on the floor covered in blankets, and there were around 40 dead in shrouds lying between the families, their smell filling the place. The situation, the fear and the destruction are indescribable.”
The latest attack came after a brief ceasefire that lasted days and was meant to create the conditions for a deal negotiated by Russia, the main backer of Bashar al-Assad’s government, that would displace civilians and rebel fighters. Local rebels, however, have insisted to Russian interlocutors that they want to remain in their city, a prospect that has heightened risks of renewed violence.
Syrian state media and the local negotiations committee in Douma said talks had resumed on Sunday morning in an effort to reach a deal after the latest bout of violence.
Douma is the last rebel holdout in eastern Ghouta. Nearly 2,000 civilians were killed in a two-month campaign by Assad’s forces backed by Moscow to oust the rebels from their last stronghold near the Syrian capital, Damascus. Human rights groups and UN officials have condemned the offensive, and the security council has adopted a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in the country’s seven-year civil war.
Tens of thousands of civilians and rebel fighters have already left other parts of eastern Ghouta for northern Syria or government-controlled areas in recent weeks, before and after rebels there negotiated surrender agreements.
The US state department said on Saturday that reports of mass casualties were horrifying and that it would demand an international response if confirmed.
Citing a history of chemical weapons use, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Assad’s government and its Russian backers needed to be held accountable and “any further attacks prevented immediately”.
“Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks,” she said.
The UK Foreign Office said in a statement: “These are very concerning reports of a chemical weapons attack with significant number of casualties, which if correct, are further proof of Assad’s brutality against innocent civilians and his backers’ callous disregard for international norms.
“An urgent investigation is needed and the international community must respond. We call on the Assad regime and its backers, Russia and Iran, to stop the violence against innocent civilians.”
The attack came almost exactly a year after the deadly sarin gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhun, which prompted US Tomahawk missile attacks on a Syrian airbase.
Russia dismissed reports of a new chemical weapons attack on Sunday. The Interfax news service quoted Maj Gen Yuri Yevtushenko, the head of Moscow’s peace and reconciliation centre in Syria, as saying: “We strongly refute this information.”