Reports and footage pouring in after a deadly chemical attack in Syria killed dozens showed children with foam around their mouths and entire families “gassed to death” in the rebel-held town of Douma.
"The fate of hundreds of families inside shelters is still unknown due to cuts in communication and electricity, as rescue teams find it hard to have access," the opposition group National Coalition said in a statement.
Aid organizations estimated that more than 70 people were killed in the purported attack on Saturday. Damascus and its ally, Russia, have denied this.
In one of the earliest reports, the volunteer rescue group White Helmets wrote on Twitter that a helicopter had dropped a barrel bomb filled with chemicals on Douma, killing at least 40 people and injuring hundreds.
"Entire families in shelters gassed to death in Douma EastGhouta hiding in their cellars, suffocated from the poisonous gas bringing the initial death toll to more than 40," the organization said on Twitter.
The tweet was accompanied by images of apparent victims of the alleged attack, including children, with foam around their mouths.
"Significant numbers of children" were among the "well over 70 people" killed in the attack, a spokesman for the international charity Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) told dpa.
In a separate statement, the charity said the death toll was expected to rise to well more than 100, as rescuers had experienced "extreme difficulty reaching victims due to the continued bombardment on Douma."
The Syrian-American Medical Society, an aid group, reported that more than 500 cases, mainly women and children, were brought to medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent.
"Patients have shown signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odor," the group added in a report.
In response to the reports, Russia denied that its allies in the Syrian army used chemical weapons in Douma.
"The allegations that a chlorine barrel bomb had been dropped in Douma by the Syrian armed forces were the work of the so-called independent non-governmental organizations, including the White Helmets, which is widely known for its fake news," Major General Yuri Yevtushenko, a senior Russian commander in Syria, said on Sunday, according to the state news agency TASS.
"We strongly reject this information and confirm readiness after Douma is liberated from militants to send Russian specialists in radiation, chemical and biological protection to collect data to confirm that these statements are fabricated," added Yevtushenko, who heads the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of the Warring Sides in Syria, linked to the Russian Defence Ministry.
Earlier Sunday, the official Syrian news agency SANA dismissed reports of the attack as "chemical fabrications" and said that "terrorists" were repeating the allegations "in a blatant attempt to hinder the army's advance."
"Reports from a number of contacts and medical personnel on the ground indicate a potentially high number of casualties, including among families hiding in shelters," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
"These reports, if confirmed, are horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community," she continued, adding that "the [Syrian] regime's history of using chemical weapons against its own people is not in dispute."
Nauert said that Russia, by shielding its ally Syria, "ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks."
An investigation by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons blamed the Syrian government for the April 4, 2017, sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, in which at least 80 people died.
That attack prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to order airstrikes on Syrian government facilities.
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