Middle East

Doctors collect samples in Syria massacre

A man reacts at a site hit by what activists said was an air raid by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus August 22, 2013. (REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh)

BEIRUT: With U.N. chemical weapons inspectors trapped just kilometers away from the site of what could be one of the worst gas attacks in decades, doctors frantically collected samples Thursday that they hoped could prove an alleged massacre in the outskirts of Damascus.

In between power cuts and ongoing government shelling in the eastern Ghouta region, blood, urine and hair samples were being collected and refrigerated from what medical officials said were over 1,400 people killed in the alleged chemical attack early Wednesday.

Dr. Abu Yazan, an anesthesiologist in eastern Ghouta, told The Daily Star the dead – killed in what activists described as a government chemical attack using a nerve agent – were piling up, and doctors were overwhelmed trying to treat the injured.

“We have taken necessary samples and are keeping them cold, and we are trying to communicate with legal authorities to prove this case,” he said, speaking via Skype.

The alleged attack coincided with a visit to Damascus of a United Nations fact-finding mission to investigate earlier claims of chemical weapons use in Syria. But the team has yet to be granted access to the latest alleged site.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded Bashar Assad’s government allow the inspectors unparalleled access “without delay.” The U.N. chief also sent a special envoy to pressure Damascus, indicating the scale of international concern over what could be the biggest chemical attack since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988.

Abu Yazan said medical groups were growing frustrated with the lack of U.N. activity from chief inspector Ake Sellstrom and his colleagues, whose hotel is only a few kilometers from the alleged attack site.

“We wanted [to] reach the investigators to bring them to Ghouta and see the crime with their own eyes,” he said. “The [U.N.] Security Council should have undertaken quick measures to allow the investigators into Ghouta, because it is a rare chance to see crimes as they happen.”

The Damascus regime, which has been trying to quash a rebellion that has morphed into a full-blown civil war, strongly denied opposition allegations that it had carried out a chemical attack.

“The general leadership of the army confirms that these allegations are completely false,” a military spokesman said on state television. Government officials pointed to the illogical timing of the attack, just days after the arrival of the inspectors, as evidence that they were not responsible.

The death toll for Wednesday’s attack varies hugely. Abu Yazen quoted the Unified Medical Bureau for eastern Ghouta’s figure of 1,466 dead. However, the Britain-based opposition group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists across Syria, said they were able to confirm 136 dead. The Daily Star was not able to reconcile the disparity in figures.

A spokesman from the opposition Syrian National Coalition warned the death toll was likely to rise as bodies were still being found. “We expect the number to grow because we just discovered a neighborhood in Zamalka where there are houses full of dead people,” Khaled Saleh said from Istanbul.

“People were sleeping with the windows open. No one cared about the sounds of the bombings because people have got used to it ... so the gas spread inside the houses. Some people managed to get out and call for help, others were inflicted and couldn’t move,” Abu Yazan, the anesthesiologist said.

Video footage showed victims without visible wounds, gasping and twitching as their bodies convulsed. Doctors frantically doused the eyes and mouths of sufferers to alleviate the reaction to the gases. Other amateur videos showed rows of dead bodies wrapped in white cloths. Victims were buried hurriedly, activists said, to prevent their bodies from decomposing in the heat.

The images drew international condemnation, with the White House describing the events as “appalling” and France’s foreign minister raising the possibility of force if chemical weapons use is proved. “We need a reaction by the international community, ... a reaction of force,” Laurent Fabius said.

The United States, however, said it was unable to conclusively say that chemical weapons had been used in the attack, adding that U.S. President Barack Obama has directed U.S. intelligence agencies to urgently help verify allegations.

“At this time, right now, we are unable to conclusively determine CW [chemical weapons] use,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. “We are doing everything possible in our power to nail down the facts.”

Eastern Ghouta was struck by heavy shelling throughout Thursday, activists said – a move likely to further impede the U.N. inspectors’ movements. The Local Coordination Committees reported air raids on the rural suburb from the Qasioun mountains near the capital. – Additional reporting by Diana Saad

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 23, 2013, on page 1.

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