WORLD, faith, and humanitarian leaders have condemned a chemical attack suspected to have been carried out by Syrian government forces against civilians in the rebel-held region of Eastern Ghouta.
As many as 70 people were feared to have died, including tens of children, from chemical poisoning, in the suburb of Douma, the remaining rebel-held area on the outskirts of Damascus, first responders reported on Sunday.
The toxic nerve agent Sarin was reportedly dropped in a barrel bomb from a helicopter on Saturday night. Reports also emerged of renewed shelling in the area, causing further civilian deaths.
Toxic clouds meant that medics were initially unable to make an accurate count of the dead.
The United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) reported on Wednesday, however, that an estimated 500 patients at Syrian health facilities had shown signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals, after the shelling of the suburb.
At least 70 people had died, including 43 from chemical exposure, it reported.
“We should all be outraged at these horrific reports and images from Douma,” its deputy director-general for emergency response, Peter Salama, said.
The WHO has demanded “immediate unhindered access” to the area to provide care to those effected, assess the health impacts, and deliver a “comprehensive” public health response.
Pope Francis, in his Sunday address, called for an end to the seven-year conflict. “Let us pray for all the deceased, for the wounded, for the families who suffer,” he said.
“There is no good war or bad war. There is nothing, nothing, that can justify the use of such instruments of extermination against unarmed people and populations.”
While the UN was initially unable to verify reports of the attack, a statement from a spokesman of the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, on Sunday, condemned the use of chemical weapons.
“The secretary-general notes that any use of chemical weapons, if confirmed, is abhorrent, and requires a thorough investigation. He reiterates there is no military solution to the conflict. It is critical that civilians be protected.”
The UK was in emergency talks with the UN, alongside France and the United States, on Sunday night. The Prime Minister said on Monday that the Assad regime, and its backers, including Russia, “must be held to account” for the “barbaric” attack.
Theresa May was under pressure this week to join a wave of military air-strikes against the regime, led by the United States. She told President Trump on Tuesday that she needed more evidence before justifying an immediate strike.
She was due to hold an emergency cabinet meeting on Thursday.
On Wednesday, President Trump posted on Twitter: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
The Russian Foreign Ministry responded, in a reply to the message on Twitter that “smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, and not elected governments.”
The US National Security Council was also due to meet on Thursday. A White House spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, told reporters that “all options” were being considered, including military action.
It comes after further talks between ambassadors at the UN Security Council on Tuesday evening collapsed.
At the meeting, the UN envoy in Moscow, Vasily Nebenzia, urged the US to avoid military action against Russia. “I would once again beseech you to refrain from the plans that you’re currently developing,” he said.
Mr Nebenzia and the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, vetoed each other’s proposals to set up independent international investigations.
Had one of the two been approved, the UN reported, it could have replaced the expired mandate of the UN Organisation for Prevention of Chemical Weapons, and found the perpetrators responsible for the attack.
About 25,000 people have fled Eastern Ghouta for the rural villages of Dweir, Adra, and Herjelleh, in Damascus, over the past month, the UN have reported.
Hundreds of civilians, including children, have been killed by air strikes conducted by Syrian government forces on the city during this time (News, 29 March, 2 March). Some were aided by Russian fighter jets.