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Middle East

Syria conflict: The civilian victims of new menace from the sky - gas attacks

Activists in opposition areas accuse Assad’s forces of chlorine gas-filled barrel bomb attacks

Syrian government forces have attacked rebel-held areas with poisonous chlorine gas in recent weeks and months, leaving men, women and children coughing, choking and gasping for breath, according to interviews with more than a dozen activists, medics and residents on the opposition side.

Syria flatly denied the allegations, and they have yet to be confirmed by any foreign country or international organisation. But if true, they highlight the limitations of the global effort to rid President Bashar al-Assad’s government of its chemical weapons.

Witnesses near Damascus and in a central rebel-held village told the Associated Press of dozens of cases of choking, fainting and other afflictions from inhaling fumes that some said were yellowish and smelled like chlorine cleanser. Some said they believe the gas was responsible for at least two deaths.

They said the fumes came from hand grenades and helicopter-dropped “barrel bombs”, which are crude containers packed with explosives and shrapnel.

Activists have posted videos similar, though on a far smaller scale, to those from last August’s chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people and nearly triggered US air strikes against Syria. The new footage depicts men, women and children coughing and gasping in field hospitals.

The UN Security Council called for an investigation on Wednesday. Council members expressed “grave concern” over the allegations, said Nigeria’s UN ambassador U Joy Ogwu, council president.

It is an accusation that carries high stakes, and the Syrian opposition has an interest in pushing such claims in hopes of spurring the world to take action against Mr Assad, who faces a Sunday deadline for handing over all his chemical weapons for destruction.  Chlorine is a potentially lethal chemical with a multitude of ordinary civilian uses, including laundry bleach and swimming-pool disinfectant. In high concentrations, it can attack the lungs and asphyxiate victims.

While chlorine was first deployed on the battlefield in the First World War, it is no longer officially considered a warfare agent and is not among the chemicals declared by Syria. It is not as effective at killing as sarin – the nerve agent that was apparently used last summer – and experts say it is difficult to achieve high concentrations of chlorine by dropping it from the air.

A Syrian man is treated with an inhaler in Kfar Zeita, a rebel-held village in Hama province (AP)

Still, any toxic chemical is considered to be a chemical weapon if used for military purposes. Consequently, Syria’s use of chlorine-filled bombs, if confirmed, would be a violation of the chemical weapons treaty that Mr Assad’s government signed last year.

On Wednesday, Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, said his government categorically denied the use of chlorine gas. Mr Jaafari further disputed that chlorine gas could be categorised as a chemical weapon, saying “it is a mundane substance used for bleaching clothes or disinfecting swimming pools”.

Jen Psaki, a US State Department spokeswoman, said officials were still trying to determine what happened. On Sunday, the French President, François Hollande, told Europe 1 radio station there were “elements” suggesting recent use of chemical weapons, but no proof.

The Violations Documentation Centre, a Syrian group that tracks human rights violations, issued a report last week in which it claimed to have documented the use of chemicals in 15 instances since the beginning of the year in suburbs of Damascus, in Hama and in Idlib. The main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, said it identified at least nine cases in recent months where the government used poison gas.

The most serious episode appears to have occurred in Kfar Zeita, a rebel-held village in Hama province some 125 miles north of Damascus.

Three activists and a medic gave similar accounts of how several bombs containing a chlorine-smelling gas were dropped on the village of some 20,000 people starting on 11 April, triggering severe coughing, muscle contractions and choking.

A Syrian man is seen receiving oxygen from a medic in Kfar Zeita (AP)

“It smelt like eggs, then after a while it became like chlorine,” Muaz Abu Mahdi, a Kfar Zeita activist who filmed a falling bomb, said in a Skype interview. He said it killed a girl and an elderly man. He said he saw dozens of stricken people at a field hospital.

“They were lying on the ground of the clinic. Most of them had fainted. Others were shaking, and they couldn’t flex their muscles. Others woke up dizzy. Others were coughing blood,” Abu Mahdi said.

Adham Raadoun, a journalist working for a Syria-based opposition news network who lives on the edge of Kfar Zeita, said the bombs were dropped on residential areas. He said they released a yellowish smoke and smelled like chlorine cleanser.

Videos posted by activists showed rooms full of men, women and children who appeared to have serious breathing problems and were being fed oxygen by medics. 

The videos corresponded with AP reporting on the incident in Kfar Zeita, although it could not be established what caused the symptoms.

Four activists near Damascus said Syrian forces had also used small amounts of poison gas in at least four incidents in clashes in rebel-held towns around the capital since December. Syria’s government accused the al-Qa’ida rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra of releasing the chlorine gas in Kfar Zeita. But experts said Mr Assad’s forces are more likely to be responsible, because of the reports of canisters dropped from helicopters. The rebels are not known to have military aircraft.

Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said the watchdog could not verify the claims without a formal request from a government entity. “So far, no state party has asked for an investigation,” he said.