As images of Syrian children gasping and convulsing spread around the world, US President Donald Trump and other international leaders denounced the Syrian regime for their alleged role in a suspected chemical attack.
At least 48 people died Saturday in Douma, the last rebel-held town in Eastern Ghouta, the White Helmets rescue group and the Syrian American Medical Society charity group said in a joint statement.
“The evidence points toward yet another chemical attack by the regime,” said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for European Union Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. “Almost a year to the day of the horrific attacks in Khan Sheikhoun, it is a matter of grave concern that chemical weapons continue to be used, especially on civilians.”
US President Donald Trump described the attack as “sick” and criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran for supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Trump threatened that there would be a “big price to pay” for the deaths.
But the Syrian government and its key ally, Russia, vehemently denied involvement in Saturday’s attack. Instead, they accused rebels in Douma of fabricating the chemical assault claims in order to hinder the army’s advances and provoke international military intervention.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the reported attack a “hoax” that interfered with a deal to end fighting in Douma and evacuate civilians as well as Jaish al-Islam rebels and their families.
Iran, another ally, also defended the Syrian regime.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran strongly condemns the use of such (chemical) weapons by any party and anywhere in the world,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi told the state-run Islamic Republic News agency. He said the allegation that the Syrian regime is behind the attack “is not compatible with reality.”
Emergency UN security council meetings convened
The US State Department described the incident in Douma as “horrifying” and said that, if the use of chemical agents in the attack was confirmed, it would “demand an immediate response by the international community.”
The United National Security Council will hold two emergency meetings on Monday, two UN diplomats told CNN.
A meeting on the attack was requested by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Kuwait, Peru and Cote d’Ivoire. Russia requested another meeting, the diplomats said; the topic is not known but it is believed to be Syria-related.
Hundreds of people affected
Anti-government activists claimed Syrian military helicopters dropped barrel bombs filled with chemicals on the town, suffocating some residents and sending others into violent convulsions.
Graphic footage shot by rescuers and activists show victims – including children – dead and injured, some ghostly white and foaming at the mouth in makeshift clinics. Others were found suffocated in their homes, according to first responders.
At least 48 people died in the Douma area, and 500 others displayed symptoms similar to exposure to “toxic gas,” the White Helmets rescue group and Syrian American Medical Society said. Other groups said the death toll was higher. CNN could not independently verify the authenticity of the footage or the reports.
Following the attack, doctors in Eastern Ghouta saw patients shaking uncontrollably and some who appeared to be paralyzed and unresponsive, an official from the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) told CNN.
The official, who asked to be identified as Dr. Jad, is in touch with local doctors and said one of the affected areas was the residential area of Masaken, where hundreds of civilians reside in underground shelters.
State TV: Deal reached to evacuate Douma rebels
The attack comes as Syrian forces are on the verge of reclaiming the last rebel-held areas in the country. Douma is the last town held by rebels in Eastern Ghouta, which was besieged for six years and had been heavily bombarded since mid-February.