UN meets as Syria ‘chemical attack’ kills hundreds
Opposition leader says death toll from suspected gas attack could be as high as 1,300
Syrian activists have accused president Bashar al-Assad’s forces of launching the gas attack that would, if confirmed, be by far the worst reported use of chemical arms in the two-year-old civil war. Photograph: Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
A girl who survived the apparent gas attack rests inside a mosque in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus today. Britain and France are to request a United Nations investigation into the alleged chemical attack. Photograph: Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters
A boy who survived the attack cries as he takes shelter. One opposition leader said the death toll was as high as 1,300. Photograph: Mohamed Abdullah/Reuters
The United Nations Security Council is meeting this evening to discuss an alleged deadly gas attack in Syria that, if confirmed, would be the world’s worst chemical weapons attack in decades, diplomats have said.
Western and regional countries have publicly called for UN chemical weapons investigators, who arrived in Damascus three days ago to look into previous allegations of such attacks, to be dispatched to the scene of what may be one of the deadliest incidents of Syria’s two-year-old civil war.
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon said he was shocked and added that the head of the organisation’s inspection team in Damascus was already discussing the latest claims with the government.
Britain and France are to request a United Nations investigation into the attack in which hundreds of people are reported to have died.
“We hope the UN team in Damascus will be given immediate and unrestricted access to this area to try and establish the truth. There is no reason not to be given access when (the site) is not so many miles from where they are doing their work now,” British foreign secretary William Hague told reporters in Paris.
“I hope this will wake up some who have supported the Assad regime to realise its murderous and barbaric nature,” Mr Hague added, before heading into a working dinner with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius.
Syria’s opposition accused president Bashar al-Assad‘s forces of gassing hundreds of people - by one report as many as 1,300 - in the attack. Other estimates put the current toll at between 200 and 500. None of the figures could be independently verified.
Russia, too, urged a fair and professional investigation but Dr Assad‘s biggest foreign ally also heaped scepticism on his enemies’ claims. A foreign ministry spokesman in Moscow said the release of gas after UN inspectors arrived suggested strongly that it was a “provocation“ to discredit Syria‘s government.
Images show scores of bodies including of small children, laid on the floor of a clinic with no visible signs of injuries.
One witness told from the suburb of Erbin: “We would go into a house and everything was in its place, every person was in their place. They were lying where they had been. They looked like they were asleep. But they were dead.”
It was not possible to verify the cause of their deaths. The Syrian government denied that it had used chemical arms.
The Russian spokesman said: “This cannot but suggest that once again we are dealing with a pre-planned provocation. This is supported by the fact that the criminal act was committed near Damascus at the very moment when a mission of UN experts had successfully started their work of investigating allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons there.“
George Sabra, one of Dr Assad’s leading opponents, said the death toll was as high as 1,300.
“Today’s crimes are ... not the first time the regime has used chemical weapons. But they constitute a turning point in the regime‘s operations,“ he told a news conference in Istanbul. “This time it was for annihilation rather than terror.”
An opposition monitoring group, citing figures compiled from medical clinics in the Damascus suburbs, put the death toll at 494 - 90 per cent of them killed by gas, the rest by bombing and conventional arms. The rebel Syrian National Coalition said 650 people had been killed.
Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said it was clear from television images coming from Syria that chemical weapons had been used in attack near Damascus and called for an immediate UN investigation. “Use of chemical weapons in Syria is evident from the footage coming from there,” Mr Davutoglu said in an interview broadcast on Turkey’s Kanal 24 television. “We have called for an immediate investigation by the UN teams.”
If the cause of death and the scale of the killing were confirmed, it would be the worst known use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.
Activists said rockets with chemical agents hit the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar during fierce pre-dawn bombardment by government forces.
The Damascus Media Office monitoring centre said 150 bodies were counted in Hammouriya, 100 in Kfar Batna, 67 in Saqba, 61 in Douma, 76 in Mouadamiya and 40 in Irbib.
Residents of the capital said mortars later hit government-held areas in Faris Khoury Street and the Malki district, where Assad has a residence. There were no reports of injuries.
Heavy air strikes continued throughout the day against the rebel suburbs of Mouadamiya and Jobar.
A nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, earlier said the death toll collated from medical centres was at least 213.
“Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims,“ the nurse said. Exposure to sarin gas causes pupils in the eyes to shrink to pinpoint sizes and foaming at the lips.
The UN team is in Syria investigating allegations that both rebels and army forces used chemical weapons in the past, one of the main disputes in international diplomacy over Syria.
The Swedish scientist leading the team, Ake Sellstrom, said the reports should be looked into, but doing so would require a request from a UN member state.
France and Sweden said the mission must be sent to the site to investigate without delay. “They need to immediately get access to this site - it‘s 15-20 minutes from where they are currently,“ Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia made similar calls. Britain said it was deeply concerned and would raise the issue at the UN Security Council, adding the attacks would be “a shocking escalation“ if confirmed.
Extensive amateur video and photographs have appeared on the internet showing countless bodies, with victims choking, some of them foaming at the mouth, and no sign of outward injury.
A video purportedly shot in the Kafr Batna neighbourhood showed a room filled with more than 90 bodies, many of them children and a few women and elderly men. Most of the bodies appeared ashen or pale but with no visible injuries. About a dozen were wrapped in blankets.
Other footage showed doctors treating people in makeshift clinics. One video showed the bodies of a dozen people lying on the floor of a clinic, with no visible wounds. The narrator in the video said they were all members of a single family. In a corridor outside lay another five bodies.
A Syrian military officer appeared on state television and said the allegations were untrue and a sign of “hysteria and floundering“ by Assad‘s opponents. Information Minister Omran Zoabi said the allegations were “illogical and fabricated“.
The head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition said Assad‘s forces had carried out a massacre: “This is a chance for the (UN inspectors) to see with their own eyes this massacre and know that this regime is a criminal one,“ Ahmed Jarba said.
Syria is one of just a handful of countries that are not parties to the international treaty that bans chemical weapons, and Western nations believe it has caches of undeclared mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agents.
Dr Assad’s officials have said they would never use poison gas - if they had it - against Syrians. The United States and European allies believe Dr Assad’s forces used small amounts of sarin gas in attacks in the past, which Washington called a “red line“ that justified international military aid for the rebels.
Dr Assad’s government has responded in the past by accusing the rebels of using chemical weapons, which they deny. Western countries say they do not believe the rebels have access to poison gas.
Khaled Omar of the opposition Local Council in Ain Tarma said he saw at least 80 bodies at the Hajjah Hospital in Ain Tarma and at a makeshift clinic at Tatbiqiya School in the nearby district of Saqba.
“The attack took place at around 3.00am (0000 GMT). Most of those killed were in their homes,“ Mr Omar said.
An activist working with Ahrar al-Sham rebel unit in the Erbin district east of the capital who used the name Abu Nidal said many of those who died were rescuers who were overcome with poison when they arrived at the scene.
“We believe there was a group of initial responders who died or were wounded, because when we went in later, we saw men collapsed on staircases or inside doorways and it looks like they were trying to go in to help the wounded and then were hurt themselves,“ he told Reuters by Skype.
“At first none of us knew there were chemical agents because it seemed like just another night of air strikes, and no one was anticipating chemical weapons use, especially with UN monitors in town.“
The timing of the allegations - just three days after the UN experts checked in to a Damascus hotel a few kilometres to the east at the start of their mission - was surprising.
“It would be very peculiar if it was the government to do this at the exact moment the international inspectors come into the country,“ said Rolf Ekeus, a retired Swedish diplomat who headed a team of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq in the 1990s.
“At the least, it wouldn‘t be very clever.“