Syrian opposition activists and rescuers said Sunday that a poison gas attack on a rebel-held town near the capital has killed at least 40 people, allegations denied by the Syrian government.
The alleged attack in the town of Douma occurred late Saturday amid a resumed offensive by Syrian government forces after the collapse of a truce.
The reports could not be independently verified.
The United States has called on Russia to end its support for the Syrian government immediately and “work with the international community to prevent further, barbaric chemical weapons attacks.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement that the United States is closely following the reports April 7 of another alleged chemical weapons attack, this time targeting a hospital in Douma, Syria.
The statement said “Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks, targeting of countless civilians, and the suffocation of Syria’s most vulnerable communities with chemical weapons.”
Russia dismissed reports of a deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria’s Douma, Interfax news service reported Sunday, citing Russia’s Ministry of Defense.
“We decidedly refute this information,” Major-General Yuri Yevtushenko, head of the Russian peace and reconciliation center in Syria, was cited as saying.
“We hereby announce that we are ready to send Russian specialists in radiation, chemical and biological defense to collect information, as soon as Douma is freed from militants. This will confirm the trumped-up nature of these statements,” Yevtushenko is quoted as saying.
Opposition-linked first responders, known as the White Helmets, reported the attack, saying entire families were found suffocated in their homes and shelters. It reported a death toll from suffocation of more than 40, saying the victims showed signs of gas poisoning including pupil dilation and foaming at the mouth. In a statement, however, it reported a smell resembling chlorine, which would not explain the described symptoms, usually associated with sarin gas.
It said around 500 people were treated for suffocation and other symptoms, adding that most medical facilities and ambulances were put out of service because of the shelling.
Rebels claimed Syrian government forces dropped barrel bombs containing poisonous chemicals on civilians Saturday, as Syria continued its offensive against the last rebel-held town in eastern Ghouta
Syrian state media denied the rebels’ claim, as troops launched an assault on Douma, near the capital Damascus.
SAMS said a chlorine bomb hit Douma hospital, however Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said he could not confirm the use of chemical weapons.
The Syrian American Medical Society, a relief organization, said 41 people were killed and hundreds wounded.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 80 people were killed in Douma on Saturday, including around 40 who died from suffocation. But it said the suffocations were the result of shelters collapsing on people inside.
Videos posted online by the White Helmets purportedly showed victims, including toddlers in diapers, breathing through oxygen masks at makeshift hospitals.
The weekend’s fighting comes after some rebel groups in Ghouta accepted safe passage to rebel-held areas northeast of Aleppo.
The cease-fire effectively ended Friday, when Syrian troops have launched a ground and air assault on Douma.
State television showed live footage Friday of thick smoke billowing from different parts of Douma, the largest city in Ghouta. It said Republican Guard forces were pushing in on the town, where the Jaish al-Islam rebel group is holding out.
Russia said last week that Jaish al-Islam accepted a deal to leave Ghouta, which houses tens of thousands of people. However, the evacuations stalled over reports that the rebel group remained divided over the withdrawal.
The Syrian government said it had started negotiations Sunday with the rebel group Jaish al-Islam, hours after the suspected chemical attack.
There was no immediate comment from Jaish al-Islam, which said the government carried out the chemical attack.
This story was written by VOA News with contributions from the Associated Press and Reuters.