BEIRUT — Syrian opposition activists and rescuers said Sunday (April 8) 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 (April 7) 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. President Trump laid the blame squarely on the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Assad’s allies on Sunday morning, tweeting that “President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad” and calling the attack “another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever.”
First responders said they found families suffocated in their homes and shelters, with foam on their mouths. The opposition-linked Syrian Civil Defense were able to document 42 fatalities but were impeded from searching further by strong odors that gave their rescuers difficulties breathing, said Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesman for the group, which is known as the White Helmets.
A joint statement by the Civil Defense and the Syrian American Medical Society, a relief organization, said more than 500 people, mostly women and children, were brought to medical centers 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 pro-opposition Ghouta Media Center alleged that government forces dropped a barrel bomb containing the nerve agent Sarin, BBC News reports.
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’ spokesman, 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.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman 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. Last week, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haleyto Assad against the use of chemical weapons. A spokesman for the U.K. mission to the U.N. said Sunday that “an urgent investigation is needed and the international community must respond.”
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the U.N. could not verify the attack, but noted “that any use of chemical weapons, if confirmed, is abhorrent, and requires a thorough investigation.”
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.