Syrian opposition activists and rescuers said Sunday that a poison gas attack on a rebel-held town near the capital has killed at least 40 people, allegations denied by the Syrian government.
The alleged attack in the town of Douma occurred late Saturday amid a resumed offensive by Syrian government forces after the collapse of a truce with the Army of Islam rebel group.
The reports could not be independently verified. As the U.S. worked to verify the claim that poison gas was used, President Donald Trump said there would be a “big price to pay” for resorting to outlawed weapons of mass destruction.
First responders said they found families suffocated in their homes and shelters, with foam on their mouths. The opposition-linked Syrian Civil Defence were able to document 42 fatalities but were impeded from searching further by strong odours that gave their rescuers difficulties breathing, said Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesman for the group, which is known as the White Helmets.
A top White House aide, asked about the possibility of a U.S. missile strike in response, said, “I wouldn’t take anything off the table.”
Government forces agreed to a two-hour cease-fire in Douma on Sunday after the Army of Islam asked to restart talks to end the assault, according to the state-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV station.
Douma has been devastated by close to five years of siege at the hands of government forces. It was once one of the hubs of the 2011 Arab Spring-styled uprising against President Bashar Assad’s government.
In recent weeks, government forces have recaptured villages and towns in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital. Douma is the only town left holding out.
The government demanded that the Army of Islam release prisoners and stops their shelling of Damascus as a precondition to resuming talks, according to al-Ikhbariya. The station said government negotiators met with a delegation of rebels at a checkpoint outside Douma.
A joint statement by the Civil Defence and the Syrian American Medical Society, a relief organization, said more than 500 people, mostly women and children, were brought to medical centres with difficulty breathing, foaming at the mouth, and burning of the eyes. It said patients gave off a chlorine-like smell. Some had blue skin, a sign of oxygen deprivation.
It said the symptoms were consistent with chemical exposure. One patient, a woman, had convulsions and pinpoint pupils, suggesting exposure to a nerve agent.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 80 people were killed in Douma on Saturday, including around 40 who died from suffocation. But it said the suffocations were the result of shelters collapsing on people inside.
“Until this minute, no one has been able to find out the kind of agent that was used,” Mahmoud, the White Helmets’ spokesperson, in a video statement from Douma.
He said the government was also targeting homes, clinics, and first responder facilities with conventional explosives and barrel bombs. Most of the medical points and ambulances of the town have been put out of service.
Videos posted online by the White Helmets showed victims, including toddlers in diapers, breathing through oxygen masks at makeshift hospitals.
The Syrian government, in a statement posted on the state-run news agency SANA, strongly denied the allegations. It said the claims were “fabrications” by the Army of Islam, calling it a “failed attempt” to impede government advances.
“The army, which is advancing rapidly and with determination, does not need to use any kind of chemical agents,” the statement said.
Britain’s foreign secretary said Sunday that reports of the attack are “deeply disturbing,” and warns that Russia must not try to block an international investigation. Boris Johnson says the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad have used poison gas in at least four attacks since 2014.
He says Britain backs an investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and warns that Assad-supporting “Russia must not yet again try to obstruct these investigations.”
He says “those responsible for the use of chemical weapons have lost all moral integrity and must be held to account.”
Turkey’s president also condemned the attack.
Speaking Sunday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said women and children were “martyred.” He lashed out against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s international allies, asking: “When will you turn round and look at these children, these women who are being killed in eastern Ghouta?”
Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2018
….to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2018
The alleged gas attack in Douma comes almost exactly a year after a chemical attack in the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun killed dozens of people. That attack prompted the U.S. to launch several dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. President Donald Trump said the attack was meant to deter further Syrian use of illegal weapons.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that Washington was closely following “disturbing reports” of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma.
“These reports, if confirmed, are horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community,” she said in a statement late Saturday.
U.S. President Donald Trump condemned the “mindless CHEMICAL attack” in a statement on Twitter. In a tweet Sunday, Trump said that the “area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world,” and that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran — influential Syrian backers — “are responsible for backing Animal Assad.”
Trump called for the area to be opened “immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!”
The Syrian government and its ally, Russia, denied any involvement in the alleged gas attack.
Maj. Gen. Yuri Yevtushenko was quoted by Russian news agencies on Sunday as saying Russia was prepared to send specialists to Douma to “confirm the fabricated nature” of the reports.
A chemical attack in eastern Ghouta in 2013 that was widely blamed on government forces killed hundreds of people, prompting the U.S. to threaten military action before later backing down.
Syria denies ever using chemical weapons during the seven-year civil war, and says it eliminated its chemical arsenal under a 2013 agreement brokered by the U.S. and Russia after the attack in eastern Ghouta.