A chemical attack on a rebel-held town in Syria's eastern Ghouta killed dozens of people, a medical relief organization and rescue workers reported, and Washington said it would demand an immediate international response if the reports were confirmed.
Medical relief organization Syrian American Medical Society said 41 people had been killed, with other reports putting the death toll much higher. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 80 people were killed, including around 40 who died from suffocation. The civil defense rescue service, also known as the White Helmets, put the death toll as high as 150 on one of its Twitter feeds.
“The Assad regime and its allies carry on with their crimes,” the rebels’ military spokesman Hamza Birqdar told al-Hadath TV.
The Russian-backed Syrian state denied government forces had launched any chemical attack as the reports began circulating on Saturday night and said rebels in the eastern Ghouta town of Douma were in a state of collapse and spreading false news.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports.
Syrian state news agency SANA said the rebel group, Jaish al-Islam, was making “chemical attack fabrications in an exposed and failed attempt to obstruct advances by the Syrian Arab army,” citing an official source.
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State TV later reported that the Syrian government was ready to start negotiating with Jaish Al-Islam in Douma, quoting an official source.
The lifeless bodies of around a dozen children, women and men, some of them with foam at the mouth, were shown in one video circulated by activists. “Douma city, April 7 ... there is a strong smell here,” a voice can be heard saying. Douma is located about ten kilometers northeast of the center of Damascus, Syria's capital.
The U.S. State Department described the reports as “horrifying” and would, if confirmed, “demand an immediate response by the international community.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it could not confirm if chemical weapons had been used.
Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman said 11 people had died in Douma as a result of suffocation caused by the smoke from conventional weapons being dropped by the government. It said a total of 70 people suffered breathing difficulties.
Medical relief organization SAMS said a chlorine bomb hit Douma hospital, killing six people, and a second attack with “mixed agents” including nerve agents had hit a nearby building.
Basel Termanini, the U.S.-based vice president of SAMS, told Reuters another 35 people had been killed at the nearby apartment building, most of them women and children. “We are contacting the UN and the U.S. government and the European governments,” he said by telephone.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauret recalled a 2017 sarin gas attack in northwestern Syria that the West and the United Nations blamed on Assad’s government.
“The Assad regime and its backers must be held accountable and any further attacks prevented immediately,” she said.
“The United States calls on Russia to end this unmitigated support immediately and work with the international community to prevent further, barbaric chemical weapons attacks,” Nauert said in a statement.
The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons during the conflict.
Six civilians were killed earlier Saturday in mortar shelling of residential neighborhoods of the capital Damascus, and 38 others were injured, Syrian state media reported, accusing Jaish al-Islam of the attacks. The rebel group’s spokesman Birqdar issued a statement denying that accusation.
On Friday, the government launched a fierce air and ground assault on Douma, the last rebel-held town in eastern Ghouta, killing 48 people in the last 24 hours alone.
State TV showed thick clouds of smoke rising from Douma, where Jaish al-Islam is holding out after insurgents in other parts of eastern Ghouta accepted offers of safe passage to rebel-held areas in the north of the country.
Last year, a joint inquiry by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) found the Syrian government was responsible for an April 4, 2017 attack using the banned nerve agent sarin in the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens of people.
The inquiry had previously found that Syrian government forces were responsible for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015 and that Islamic State militants used mustard gas.
Rebel-held areas of the Ghouta region were also hit in a major chemical attack in 2013.
The Syrian civil war, now entering its eighth year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes, while drawing in regional countries and global powers supporting client factions on the ground.