Syrian troops renewed their artillery assault on a Damascus suburb where the opposition says hundreds were killed by toxic gases, as France urged the world to respond “with force” to any use of chemical weapons.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ordered his top envoy on disarmament affairs, Angela Kane, to travel to Damascus to discuss the alleged chemical attack, according to an e-mailed UN statement. Ban today will formally ask Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government to allow a UN chemical weapons inspection team already in the capital to visit the site, a spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said in the statement.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told reporters in Moscow today that Syria, which has denied using chemical weapons, has pledged “maximum cooperation” with the UN experts.
Opposition groups said as many as 1,300 people died yesterday in a chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, a toll that could not be independently verified. While the use of chemicals has not been confirmed, doctors on the scene reported injuries consistent with the use of nerve gas and pesticides, and photos and video footage posted on the Internet showed bodies without visible wounds.
A chemical attack, if confirmed, would be a war crime and the worst atrocity in 2 1/2 years of civil war in which more than 100,000 Syrians have died and millions more have been displaced, according to UN estimates. The U.S. and European powers have resisted opposition appeals for more help as Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia bolster Assad.
Forces loyal to Assad pounded the Ghouta district today with mortars and heavy guns, sending thick plumes of smoke rising, according to a video posted on Facebook by the Syrian Revolution General Commission.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported “violent” clashes near a government checkpoint in the area on its Facebook page.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the world should respond “with force” if chemical weapons were deployed.
“If it’s true, the position of France is that there needs to be a reaction,” Fabius said on France’s RMC radio. “That reaction can take the form of force.”
The U.S. is “working urgently” to gather information about the reports, the White House said in a statement yesterday.
“The videos on television are certainly troubling, but from the videos alone it is difficult to tell exactly what has happened,” said Philip Coyle, former associate director for national security and international affairs in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Nonetheless, the “fact that so many of the wounded and dead have no apparent shrapnel or other types of wounds that might come from rifle or artillery attacks is also suggestive” of chemical weapons, Coyle, now a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a Washington research group, said in an interview.
Doctors contacted in Douma, a northeastern suburb of Damascus, described casualties with symptoms seen in chemical attacks, including muscle spasms, disorientation, pinpoint pupils and respiratory distress that may lead to death.
Casualties started arriving at the medical facilities in the rebel-controlled area after heavy shelling began around 3 a.m. local time, according to the doctors, who spoke in a Skype call arranged by the Syrian Support Group, a Washington group that works with the U.S. government to deliver non-lethal military aid to the rebels.
The 10 medical facilities in the Ghouta district were overwhelmed and many people died because of a lack of respiratory equipment and drugs, according to a man identified as Khaled Ad-Doumi, head of the Douma medical office. His facility reported that 63 of about 600 casualties died.