August 21, 2013

Syrian activists claim deadly 'toxic gas' attack

By Bassem Mroue / The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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This citizen journalism image provided by the Local Committee of Arbeen shows a Syrian girl receiving treatment at a makeshift hospital, in Arbeen, Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday. The image has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting.

AP

click image to enlarge

This citizen journalism image provided by the Media Office Of Douma City shows Syrian men lying on the ground as they wait for treatment after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces. The photo was authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting.

AP

Such different figures from activists groups are common in the immediate aftermaths of attacks in Syria, where the government restricts foreign and domestic reporting.

George Sabra, a senior member of the Coalition, blamed the regime, as well as "the weakness of the U.N. and American hesitation" for the deaths. "The silence of our friends is killing us," he said, adding that Wednesday's attack effectively killed off any chance for peace negotiations with the regime.

Syria is said to have one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin. The government refuses to confirm or deny it possesses such weapons.

In June, the U.S. said it had conclusive evidence that Assad's regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces. That crossed what President Barack Obama called a "red line," prompting a U.S. decision to begin arming rebel groups, although that has not happened yet.

An opposition activist and a pharmacist in the town of Arbeen who identified himself by the pseudonym Abu Ahmad said he attended to dozens of injured people in a field hospital after the shelling on Zamalka and Ein Tarma early Wednesday. He 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 grayish."

Abu Ahmad, who declined to give his real name fearing for his own safety, said he based his belief that the symptoms could indicate a chemical weapon attack because he had attended to two victims two months ago brought in from Jobar, a neighborhood in Damascus, who had the same symptoms and were believed to have been injured in a chemical attack.

Activists in Zamalka told Abu Ahmed that an additional 200 people died in that town on Wednesday. Arbeen is five kilometers (three miles) to the northeast of Damascus.

The Syrian government denied the claims of a chemical weapons attack Wednesday.

"All what has been said is ridiculous and naive, unscientific, illogical and subjective," said Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, speaking to Syrian state television.

He said the organized media campaign was a result of the regime's successful operations against rebels on the ground.

The head of the U.N. team in Syria to investigate previous claims of alleged chemical attacks said he wants to look into the latest claims.

Speaking to Swedish broadcaster SVT, Ake Sellstrom said the high numbers of killed and wounded being reported "sound suspicious."

"It looks like something we need to look into," Sellstrom, who is Swedish, was quoted as saying.

He said a formal request from a member state would have to go through U.N. channels and Syria would need to agree — and there is no guarantee that it would.

France said they will ask the U.N. to visit the site of Wednesday's alleged attack.

President Francois Hollande, speaking at a regular Cabinet meeting, said the latest allegations "require verification and confirmation," according to government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

Hollande would ask the U.N. to go to the site "to shed full light" on the allegations.

The EU, Germany and Turkey also called for immediate U.N. access to the site of the alleged attack.

(Continued on page 3)

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