AMMAN/TEHRAN: Opposition activists accused Syrian government forces of using poison gas in the central town of Nabk Thursday, and said victims had been discovered with swollen limbs and foaming at the mouth.
The activists told Reuters two shells loaded with gas hit a rebel-held area in the town of Nabk, 68 km northeast of Damascus, on a major highway in the Qalamoun region, where fierce battles have been underway for two weeks between regime forces and rebel fighters. The activists reported seven casualties in the attack.
Separately, the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union also accused regime forces of using poison gas.
“We have documented nine casualties from poison gas used by the regime in neighborhoods of Nabk,” it said on its Facebook page.
A nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in rebel-held neighborhoods on the edge of Damascus on Aug. 21. Each side blamed the other.
Syrian President Bashar Assad subsequently agreed to give up his chemical weapons arsenal under a deal struck between Moscow and Washington that averted a U.S. attack on Damascus, and international inspectors have begun work on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons facilities.
Opposition groups have accused Assad’s forces of using chemical weapons several times before and since the Aug. 21 incident.
The reports that poison gas was used Thursday could not be verified. It was unclear what kind of gas, if any, might have been used in Nabk and there was no immediate comment from Syrian authorities.
“Seven men are reported ill so far. They have swollen limbs and foam coming out of their mouths,” said an activist calling himself Amer al-Qalamouni.
Amir Kazk, another activist in Nabk, said the two shells were part of a heavy barrage that hit the Tariq al-Mashfa district near the town’s center. The source of the fire, he added, appeared to be an army barracks on a hill in the nearby Deir Atiyeh area.
Video footage posted on YouTube by activists showed a man who said he had seen white smoke from the shelling, inhaled it and then passed out.
The authenticity of the footage could not be verified.
The accusations came as the mainstream opposition-in-exile group the National Coalition urged the international community to ensure that Assad and senior regime officials would play no part in the Geneva peace conference or a transitional political authority.Citing a letter earlier this week by the U.N.’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, the coalition said that based on the mounting evidence of crimes against humanity committed by Assad and his inner circle, they should not attend Geneva, scheduled to take place next month.
“With peace talks scheduled for Jan. 22, 2014, it is incumbent upon the international community to insist that those with blood on their hands are not able to dictate Syria’s future, or determine the path of our country’s transition,” said a letter by Naji Ghadbian, the coalition’s representative to the U.N.
In Tehran, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said the upcoming peace conference should lay the groundwork for “absolutely free” elections.
“The ground should be prepared for holding an absolutely free election with no preconditions,” the Iranian leader told visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the presidency website reported. Rouhani, whose country backs Assad, said the conference should also aim for the “complete expulsion of the terrorists from Syria,” using the regime’s term for its foes.
International peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi Monday called for both Iran and Saudi Arabia, which supports the armed rebels, to be invited to the peace talks initiated by Moscow and Washington.
Damascus has said Assad will remain president and lead any transition agreed at the conference.
At his meeting with Rouhani, Maliki hailed the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers in late November, saying it would contribute to the region’s stability. “This agreement is important ... for Iran and regional countries, and the Iraqi government is hopeful of witnessing the long-term impact of this agreement on regional stability,” Maliki said.
In northern Syria, jihadists have kidnapped more than 50 Kurds in the past three days, a monitoring group said.
The kidnappings come months into major battles for control of several parts of northern Syria that have pitted Kurdish fighters against jihadists, chiefly the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.