Syrian anti-government activists accused the regime of carrying out a toxic gas attack that killed at least 100 people, including many children, during intense artillery and rocket barrages yesterday on the eastern suburbs of Damascus, part of a fierce government offensive in the area.
The attack coincided with the visit by a 20-member UN chemical weapons team to Syria to investigate three sites where chemical weapons attacks allegedly occurred over the past year.
Their presence raises questions about why the regime — which called the claims of the attack yesterday “absolutely baseless” — would employ chemical agents at this time.
Shocking images emerged from the purported attack, showing pale, lifeless bodies of children lined up on floors of makeshift hospitals and others with oxygen masks on their faces as they were attended to by paramedics. There was no visible blood or wounds on their skin.
The reported death toll would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria’s civil war. However, there were conflicting reports as to what exactly transpired.
France’s president demanded the UN be granted access to the site of the alleged attack, while Britain’s foreign secretary said if the claims are verified it would mark “a shocking escalation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”
The Egypt-based Arab League condemned the “horrific attack” against civilians and called for an investigation.
Saudi Arabia called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting to discuss the reports, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal said.
“It is time for the Security Council to shoulder its responsibility and overcome differences between its members and restore the confidence of the international community by convening immediately to issue a clear and deterrent resolution that will put an end to this human crisis,” he said in a statement.
The heavy shelling earlier in the day pounded the capital’s eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
The intensive bombardment as well as the sound of fighter jets could be heard by residents of the Syrian capital throughout the night and early yesterday, and gray smoke hung over towns in the eastern suburbs.
Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said the activists in the area said “poisonous gas” was fired in rockets as well as from the air in the attack. He added that he has documented at least 100 deaths, but said it was no clear whether the victims died from shelling or toxic gas.
Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said hundreds of people were killed or injured in the shelling and the Syrian National Coalition, Syria’s main opposition group in exile, put the number at 1,300. The group said it was basing its claim on accounts and photographs by activists on the ground.
Such different figures from activists groups are common in the immediate aftermaths of attacks in Syria, where the government restricts foreign and domestic reporting.
An opposition activist and a pharmacist in the town of Arbeen who identified himself as Abu Ahmad, which is not his real name, said he attended to dozens of injured people in a field hospital after the shelling on Zamalka and Ein Tarma, and said many were moved to Arbeen.
He said bodies of 63 of the dead had indications of a chemical weapons attack but he could not confirm this.
“Their mouths were foaming, their pupils were constricted, and those who were brought in while still alive could not draw their breaths and died subsequently,” he told the Associated Press via Skype. “The skin around their eyes and noses was greyish.”
Additional reporting by Reuters