BEIRUT – Syrian activists accused the government on Wednesday of launching a massive chemical weapons attack that killed scores of people in the Damascus suburbs and left makeshift hospitals packed with victims gasping for breath.
The death toll from the alleged attack — which the government strongly denied — varied vastly. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 40 people were confirmed killed, but the number was likely to rise, while the Syrian Opposition Coalition claimed that at least 1,188 people had died. The Damascus Media Office also put the toll at over 1,000.
Dozens of videos were posted online showing the alleged victims. In one men sprawled on the floor of a makeshift hospital were hosed down with water . Another showed a listless child being treated with a hand-held respirator, , while others showed victims gasping for breath. It was not immediately possible to confirm whether the people depicted in the videos had in fact been exposed to chemical weapons. Syria’s state news agency called the reports “completely baseless”.
The allegations surfaced as a United Nations team of chemical weapons experts is in Syria to investigate past reports of the use of toxic gases in the civil conflict that has raged for 2 1/2 years, including an alleged attack in March, in the village of Khan al-Assal near the northern city of Aleppo, that left 19 people dead.
The United Nations team, which was admitted to the country this week after months of negotiations with the Syrian government, is attempting to determine whether chemical weapons were used, rather than who may have used them.
The attack that allegedly happened on Wednesday was in the Ghouta, an area just outside the capital that is known for its support of the Syrian rebels. Activists said rockets primed with chemical weapons struck at least seven locations.
“The fiance of my sister has died. My friend, her husband and her husband’s uncle — all dead while asleep. My neighbor, who is an old woman is dead,” said Sama Masoud, an activist who lives in the Eastern Ghouta. She said she worked to help victims in a field hospital and had felt dizziness herself.
“I saw children dying and their mothers screaming with all their might,” Masoud said. “Mothers were taking off the clothes of their children and using them, with water, to cover their mouths.”
Activists and Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby called for U.N. inspectors to visit the site immediately to investigate. Syria’s state news agency, SANA, said the accusations were designed to distract the U.N. investigation commission from its mission in Khan al-Assal.
Analysts said they did not understand why the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have the audacity to use chemical weapons on a large scale at a time when U.N. investigators were present in the country.
“Logically, it would make little sense for the Syrian government to employ chemical agents at such a time, particularly given the relatively close proximity of the targeted towns,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.
The alleged attack comes one year and one day year after President Obama declared his “red line” on chemical weapon use in Syria, timing Lister said would be “a huge coincidence if not relevant”.