Aid group reports signs of Syria chemical attack
Doctors Without Borders says more than 3,000 patients in Syria exhibited “neurotoxic” symptoms, but could not confirm if chemical weapons were used in an attack or which forces might have been responsible.
The New York Times
BEIRUT — An international aid group said Saturday that medical centers it supported near the site of a suspected chemical-weapons attack outside Damascus had received more than 3,000 patients showing symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic-nerve agents the day of the reported attack.
Of those, 355 died, said the group, Doctors Without Borders.
The statement is the first issued by an international organization working in Syria about the attack Wednesday in the suburbs northeast of Damascus, the capital. Anti-government activists have said hundreds of people were killed when government forces pelted the area with rockets that spewed poisoned gas.
Doctors Without Borders said it could not confirm what substances caused the symptoms or who was responsible for the attack, but its report appears to lend credibility to the opposition’s narrative.
The Syrian government has denied it used chemical weapons, and it said Saturday that its soldiers had found chemical supplies in areas seized from rebel forces. Russia, an ally of the Syrian government led by President Bashar Assad, accused the rebels of using the weapons, although few analysts believe they have the supplies or ability to do so.
Determining the nature of the attack Wednesday could affect the course of Western involvement in the war, and the United States, Russia and other powers have called for a U.N. team, sent to Syria to investigate past suspected chemical-weapons use, to be given access to the site.
Angela Kane, the United Nations’ high representative for disarmament affairs, arrived in Damascus on Saturday to urge the Syrian government to grant access to the team.
Doctors Without Borders said the symptoms of the patients were reported by three medical facilities it supported in the area of the reported attack.
The group’s statement said that, early Wednesday, the three clinics received some 3,600 patents who had symptoms indicating exposure to a chemical nerve agent, including breathing problems, dilated pupils, convulsions, foaming at the mouth and blurred vision. Many of the medics in the three centers also experienced some symptoms, said Stephen Cornish, one of the group’s executive directors. One medic died.
“When you put these elements together, what it suggests to us is a neurotoxic agent,” he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday that it had confirmed the deaths of 322 people in the attack, including 54 children, 82 women, 16 people who could not be identified and dozens of rebel fighters.
The group, which tracks the conflict from Britain through a network of contacts inside Syria, said its activists had visited the area, spoken to residents and collected medical reports and videos that indicated that most of the dead were killed by exposure to toxic gas.
Last year, President Obama called the use of chemical arms in Syria a red line that could prompt a harsh U.S. response, but recent statements by U.S. officials saying that they believed Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons “on a small scale” multiple times in the past year have not led to a significant public change in U.S. involvement in the war.
Obama has supported an investigation into Wednesday’s attack but has expressed hesitance about getting the United States involved militarily. A White House official said Saturday that U.S. intelligence agencies were still trying to “gather facts to ascertain what occurred.”
Obama met with his national-security staff at the White House on Saturday and “received a detailed review of a range of potential options” for the U.S. and its allies to respond to the use of chemical weapons. The statement did not specify what the options were.
Pentagon officials said the Navy had increased its presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to four destroyers, each carrying long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles similar to those launched in past U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.