Thursday, August 22, 2013

Syria: a chemical attack?

A picture of victims of what the Syrian opposition claims was an attack by government troops with missiles containing a chemical agent in pre-dawn bombardments of the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar.   (Shaam News Network/AFP)

The oppositional Syrian National Coalition said on Wednesday that as many as 1300 people were killed during an attack with chemical weapons in districts of Damascus. The opposition said that this happened after government forces launched rockets with toxic agents into the Damascus suburbs in the Ghouta region early on Wednesday. The Syrian government has denied the allegations, describing them as "illogical and fabricated". The Syrian army said the opposition made up the claims to divert attention from the huge losses its forces had suffered recently.The official Syrian Sana news agency said reports of the latest attack were "baseless", describing them as "an attempt to divert the UN chemical weapons investigation commission away from carrying out its duties".
The UN Security Council on Wednesday said that clarity was needed over the attacks. Some 35 member states, including the US, UK and France, called for UN for the UN chemical weapons inspectors that are already probing three sites of alleged chemical weapons use in Syria to be dispatched immediately to the scene to investigate. The inspectors arrived in Damascus on Sunday with a mandate to investigate three locations including the northern town of Khan al-Assal, where some 26 people were killed in March.

However, China and Russia - which have repeatedly backed the Syrian government since the crisis began - blocked a stronger security council press statement supported by the 35 states. The Russian foreign ministry noted that the reports had emerged just as the UN chemical weapons inspection team had arrived in Syria, saying that "this makes us think that we are once again dealing with a premeditated provocation".

Opposition activists say the attack took place as part of heavy government bombardment in the region surrounding Damascus, with government forces trying to drive out rebel forces. The areas said to have been affected included Irbin, Duma and Muadhamiya. Activist footage showed dozens of bodies with no visible signs of injuries, including small children, laid out on the floor of a clinic. Other videos show people being treated in makeshift hospitals, with victims, including many children, having convulsions.
The BBC quoted a doctor treating the injured, Ghazwan Bwidany, who said the main symptom, especially among children, was suffocation, as well as salivating and blurred vision. A specialist quoted by the BBC, prof Alexander Kekule of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at Halle University in Germany, said that one of the videos - although of poor quality - was consistent with the aftermath of an attack with a chemical agent. But he added that none of the patients showed typical signs of sarin or other organophosphorous nerve agents, or signs of blistering agents.
The Obama administration expressed its "deep concern" over the alleged chemical weapons attacks on Wednesday and formally requested the UN to "urgently investigate" the incident. President Barack Obama recently warned the Syrian government that using chemical weapons would cross a "red line".
Both the rebels and government forces have accused each other of using chemical weapons throughout the 28-month conflict, but so far it has not been possible to independently verify the claims.

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