Damascus suspected chemical targets thorns in Assad’s side

Few in attacked suburbs surprised by apparent use of chemical weapons

Children, affected by what activists say was a gas attack, breathe through oxygen masks in the Damascus suburb of Saqba. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Children, affected by what activists say was a gas attack, breathe through oxygen masks in the Damascus suburb of Saqba. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

Fri, Aug 23, 2013, 01:01

The areas targeted in a suspected chemical attack on Wednesday morning have been thorns in the side of the Syrian regime since the first protests broke out almost 2½ years ago.

Few, therefore, in Duma, Modamiyeh and the eastern Ghouta region outside Damascus were surprised that the government deployed what appear to be chemical weapons across the city’s suburbs.

Unverifiable video footage posted to the internet by activists of the fallout of the attack point to signs of chemical weapons use: rows and rows of bodies, fully grown men and small children lying lifeless with no signs of physical injury or bodily trauma.

Following the attack, which opposition forces said has also left up to 7,000 people injured, residents yesterday recounted what happened in what may turn out to be the deadliest incident of the Syrian conflict yet.

Mohammad Saeed of the local co-ordinating committees in Duma, a town northeast of Damascus, said six rockets armed with chemicals were fired from a government position on Qa+ssiun mountain at 3am on Wednesday and killed more than 1,000 people in the town alone.

“It’s impossible to get names for all the dead: we’re focusing on keeping people alive here following the attack,” he said. According to Mr Saeed, people in Duma were hysterical following the fallout from the attacks. He said he believed sarin gas was used but declined to say on what this was based.

“Until now we’ve been subjected to 28 incidents of chemical bombing over the past year,” he said.

The Syrian government claims it is battling terrorists backed by the governments of Arab gulf states and western countries bent on establishing an Islamic state in Syria and weakening Iran. The United Nations said more than 100,000 people have died in the conflict which began as a peaceful protest movement calling for reform of the Syrian government.

Extremist fighters
Despite months of rebel gains and losses on the battlefield, central Damascus remains firmly in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Towns in the poorer suburbs on the capital’s outskirts have generally backed rebels that have come to be increasingly dominated by extremist fighters, with some linked to al-Qaeda.

Abu Ahmad, an activist in Modamiyeh, a working-class town southwest of Damascus, said government forces attached to the feared fourth division in the nearby Mezzah military airport launched rockets on the town at 7.15am on Wednesday.

“The rockets had a strange noise when they were launched. We knew immediately what was coming wasn’t the normal one,” he said.

Seven rockets landed on the Rowda and Zeintouneh mosques in the town, situated just outside Damascus off the highway to Quneitra in the occupied Golan Heights, he said.

“People came running to the north of the town – people in the south didn’t know what was happening. They were asleep when they died.”

Both the Syrian government and the national army issued statements denying responsibility for any chemical weapons use, suggesting “terrorists” may have been responsible for the deployment of chemical weapons in order to cover up for recent losses of territory around the country.

A team of UN chemical weapons investigators is in Damascus but has no mandate to investigate claims arising from this week’s suspected attacks.

Several activists in the towns where signs of chemical weapons use contacted by The Irish Times said they did not expect the investigators to visit and examine what happened.