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Syrian activists claim hundreds killed in poisonous gas attack

Source: Date: (2013-08-21)Category: Trade News

Syrian activists claim hundreds killed in poisonous gas attack

William Hague concerned at 'shocking escalation' in reported use of chemical weapons after Assad loyalists bombard rebel-held areas around Damascus

Syrian victims in Damascus
Opposition activists with the bodies of people they say were killed during a gas attack on Wednesday near Damascus. Photograph: Reuters

Syrian opposition groups are claiming that 213 people have been killed by chemical weapons in attacks by President Bashar al-Assad's forces near Damascus on Wednesday morning.

If confirmed, the attack could force the US president, Barack Obama, to stand by his insistence that the use of such weapons was a "red line". Syrian state TV said there was "no truth whatsoever" in the allegations.

William Hague spoke of his "deep concern" at the reported deaths. The foreign secretary said that the reports, if confirmed, would mark a "shocking escalation" in the use of such weapons.

The opposition sources said rockets with toxic agents hit the Ghouta area, east of the capital, where there is a rebel presence. The opposition Sham news network reported that the nerve agent Sarin had been used.

The local rebel co-ordinating committees told Al-Arabiya TV that 635 people had been killed.

In a statement hours after the incident, Hague said: "I am deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of people, including children, have been killed in airstrikes and a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas near Damascus.

"These reports are uncorroborated and we are urgently seeking more information. But it is clear that if they are verified, it would mark a shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria."

He added: "Those who order the use of chemical weapons, and those who use them, should be in no doubt that we will work in every way we can to hold them to account.

"I call on the Syrian government to allow immediate access to the area for the UN team currently investigating previous allegations of chemical weapons use. The UK will be raising this incident at the UN Security Council."

A team of UN weapons inspectors is already in Damascus to investigate claims of the use of chemical weapons in March so it should, in theory, be possible to look at this case.

Bayan Baker, a nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, said the death toll from the attack, collated from medical centres in the region, was 213, Reuters reported.

"Many of the casualties are women and children," she said. "They arrived with their pupil dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims."

One photo purportedly taken by activists in Douma showed the bodies of at least 16 children and three adults, one wearing combat fatigues, laid at the floor of a room in a medical facility, where the bodies had been collected.

International attention on Syria, which was already fading, has been further diverted in recent weeks by the crisis in Egypt.

Dozens of graphic videos posted to social media sites show ad-hoc first aid rooms appearing to deal with multiple casualties of a chemical or toxic attack. The patients, many of them children sprawled on tiled floors and piled on hospital beds, have been stripped down seemingly in an effort to free them of the toxic substances on their clothes.

None of the injured or dead appears to have any visible injures. Many seem lifeless; others are struggling to breathe.

Some footage shows people wearing oxygen masks and others show scenes of people's hearts and chests being massaged or being hosed and washed. In a few cases, people including children are filmed foaming at the mouth while those attending give mouth-to-mouth rescuscitation.

Ghouta has been the focus of intense clashes between government and Hezbollah soldiers and rebel forces. Both sides are anxious to secure the outskirts of Damascus near the border with Lebanon to the country's north, where Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups are concentrated.

According to the Syrian Arab News Agency, the area is an important link in the chain of the weapons supply route from Jordan. Around 1.5 million people in eastern Ghouta have been trapped in an intermittent siege and cut off from basic supplies since their liberation by the Free Syrian Army in early 2012.


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