by Will Racke
Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds more injured in an apparent poison gas attack near the Syrian capital of Damascus, according to rescuers and opposition groups.
At least 40 people were killed Saturday evening in the attack, which struck the town of Douma in the besieged Eastern Ghouta enclave, says the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS), a Washington-based nonprofit that supports hospital facilities in the area.
In a joint statement with the opposition-linked Syrian Civil Defense, SAMS said more than 500 people “were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent.”
The patients showed symptoms of difficulty breathing, burning in the eyes, foaming at the mouth, and the “emission of chlorine-like odor,” the groups said.
Also known as the White Helmets, the Civil Defense reported finding entire families suffocated in their homes. It was not possible to independently verify those claims, and the Syrian government has denied the allegations, calling them a “failed attempt” to reverse the regime’s military gains in Eastern Ghouta.
“The army, which is advancing rapidly and with determination, does not need to use any kind of chemical agents,” the government said in a statement published on the state-run news agency SANA.
The State Department says it is monitoring reports of the “horrifying” attack. If allegations of chemical weapons use are confirmed, they “demand an immediate response by the international community,” department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement late Saturday.
The reports of another possible chemical attack on civilians come as the Syrian government is poised to re-capture all of Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held enclave outside the capital that has been the scene of vicious fighting over the past several months. More than 1,700 people have been killed in the area since February, when the Syrian army and allied Russian forces began a brutal assault to oust rebel forces.
Attempts by the United Nations to negotiate a lasting ceasefire have failed, as the Syrian government seeks to expel rebel forces from their last slice of territory near the capital. Instead, more than 130,000 Syrians have left eastern Ghouta through evacuation agreements between rebels and the government, according to the U.N.
The alleged chemical attack in Ghouta occurred almost exactly one year after a sarin gas attack in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed dozens of people. President Donald Trump ordered a Tomahawk cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base in response, saying it was meant to deter the regime from using chemical weapons again.
Allegations of continued chemical weapons use by the regime have worsened already tense diplomatic relations between Washington and Moscow. Russia is ultimately culpable for the chemical attacks because it has failed to restrain Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the State Department says.
“The Assad regime and its backers must be held accountable and any further attacks prevented immediately,” Nauert said. “Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks, targeting of countless civilians, and the suffocation of Syria’s most vulnerable communities with chemical weapons.”
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