Beirut (AFP) – A suspected chemical attack in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta sparked international outrage Sunday, as state media reported that the last rebel holdouts in the onetime opposition stronghold had agreed to evacuate.
State news agency SANA, citing a government source, said fighters with the Jaish al-Islam rebel faction had agreed to leave Eastern Ghouta’s main town of Douma within 48 hours.
In exchange Jaish al-Islam would release hostages it had been holding, the source said. SANA reported dozens of buses were already entering Douma to begin the evacuations.
The announcement came just hours after rescue workers said dozens of civilians had been killed in a chlorine gas attack on Douma — claims denied by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its ally Russia.
Pope Francis on Sunday joined Washington and London in condemning the attack, which according to rescuers left victims struggling to breathe, foaming at the mouth and with corneal burns.
“Nothing, nothing can justify the use of such devices of extermination against defenceless people and populations,” the pope said.
Russian-backed regime forces launched a devastating assault in February to retake Eastern Ghouta, the last major opposition bastion close to Damascus.
The assault was suspended for several days last week as some Jaish al-Islam fighters and their families evacuated and talks continued with other rebels.
Air strikes resumed as talks stalled, with at least 56 people killed on Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.
Among those who died at least 21 had suffered breathing problems after the raids, it said without being able to identify the cause.
– ‘So many people choking’ –
But Syria’s White Helmets, who act as first responders in rebel-held areas of Syria, said an attack took place late on Saturday using “poisonous chlorine gas”.
In a joint statement with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), the White Helmets said more than 500 cases were brought to medical centres “with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent”.
It said six people died while under care while rescuers found 42 more people dead in their homes with signs of similar symptoms.
Footage posted online by the White Helmets, which was not possible to verify, showed victims with yellowed skin crumpled on the ground and foaming at the mouth.
Other children could be seen receiving treatment at hospitals, with shell-shocked medics holding up gas masks to motionless infants.
“The scene was horrifying. So many people were choking, so many people,” White Helmets member Firas al-Doumi told AFP from inside Douma.
“Most died immediately. The majority were women and children,” he said.
Mohammed, a doctor inside the town reached overnight by AFP, said more than 70 people with breathing problems had come to the strapped Douma hospital overnight.
“We only have four oxygen machines. The situation is really, really tragic. I’ve been working here for four years and have never seen what I saw in the last few hours,” he said.
Assad’s regime has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons, with the United Nations among those blaming his forces for a deadly sarin gas attack in April 2017 that prompted Washington to launch military strikes against a regime military base.
The State Department said Assad’s government and its international backers “must be held accountable.”
“These reports, if confirmed, are horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
In London, the foreign office called for an urgent investigation saying that such an attack would be “further proof of Assad’s brutality against innocent civilians and his backers’ callous disregard for international norms.”
Both Syrian state media and Russia denounced the allegations as “fabrications”.
Douma is the last remaining opposition-held town in Ghouta, once the rebels’ main bastion outside Damascus but now ravaged by a seven-week regime assault.
Syrian and Russian forces have waged a fierce military onslaught onslaught and negotiated two withdrawals to retake control of 95 percent of Ghouta.
The deals, brokered by Moscow last month, saw more than 46,000 rebels and civilians bussed to the northwest opposition-held Idlib province.
It appeared Douma would follow suit, with a preliminary deal that saw hundreds of civilians and rebels from Jaish al-Islam quit the town last week.
But talks crumbled and ferocious bombing resumed on Friday.
There were more strikes early on Sunday but then the opposition’s negotiating committee for Douma said a ceasefire had been put in place for talks to Sunday.
More than 1,600 civilians have been killed in the assault on Eastern Ghouta and tens of thousands also fled into government-controlled territory through safe passages opened by Russia and Syrian troops.