Hundreds of people are believed to have been killed in an apparent gas attack on rebel-held parts of eastern Damascus that is thought to be the most significant use of chemical weapons since thousands of Kurds were gassed by Saddam Hussein in Halabja 25 years ago.
Medics, opposition fighters and political leaders said the death toll had reached 1 400 and was likely to rise further with hundreds more critically wounded in districts besieged by the Syrian military.
Other estimates put the death toll at between 200 and 500. None of the figures could be independently verified.
On August 22, rebels said new bombardments of rockets and mortars struck neighbourhoods hit by the gas attack.
The Syrian government acknowledged it had launched a major offensive in rebel-held districts in the east of the capital – described by pro-regime media as the biggest since the start of the civil war – but strongly denied using chemical weapons.
“These are lies that serve the propaganda of the terrorists,” a Syrian official said, referring to the armed opposition. “We would not use such weapons.”
However, George Sabra, the head of the main Syrian opposition group, laid the blame on the Bashar al-Assad regime, saying the scenes “constitute a turning point in its operations”.
“This time it was for annihilation, rather than terror,” he said.
'Bodies scattered in the streets'
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon called for “a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation” of allegations of chemical weapons use.
A UN inspection team arrived in Damascus this week to look into earlier claims of chemical weapon use, but was granted permission to enter Syria with a limited mission to investigate only three specific sites.
An expanded mandate to investigate this week’s attack in eastern Ghouta – only 16km from the team’s hotel – must be sought by the UN secretary general and approved by Syria.
Rescuers and victims said the shelling of eastern Ghouta started shortly after 2am and targeted three districts, Ein Tarma, Zermalka and Jobar, all rebel strongholds for the past year.
“It was around 2.30am [on] Wednesday when we received calls from Zemalka and Jobar,” said a Free Syria Army (FSA) Captain Alla’a al-Basha, who has documented previous alleged chemical attacks in the area.
“The FSA members were asking for more forces to evacuate the civilians as the shells were coming in at around five per minute. As soon as I and my team arrived at the scene, I saw bodies scattered in the streets. I saw whole houses – none of their residents were alive. When I got there, I could smell what seemed to be burning sulphur and something like cooked eggs. The smoke was not pure white.
“Most of the victims were shivering and they turned yellow. I saw a woman who was tearing at her clothes as she could not breathe. The number of the casualties that we were able to document so far is 1 228. The doctors think that more than 20 shells with fatal gases were fired.
“Most of the victims did not appear to be injured but died from suffocation. I held a young boy whose body was like a piece of wood and his colour was very blue. He did not have any wound.”
By that night, more than 120 videos had been uploaded to the internet, most depicting scenes of men, women and children in respiratory distress on watery floors, and doctors describing the victims’ symptoms.
White foam was bubbling from the mouth and nostrils of many victims. Some writhed in distress, apparently struggling to breathe. – © Guardian News & Media 2013