Asia

Witness tells of Syria 'chemical attack', burials by night

A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows smoke above buildings following what Syrian rebels claim to be a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, 2013.

A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows smoke above buildings following what Syrian rebels claim to be a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, 2013.  (SHAAM NEWS NETWORK/AFP)

Dozens of civilians killed in an alleged chemical weapons attack on a town near Damascus were buried in the dark of night to escape the attention of Syrian troops, an activist said Thursday.

The bodies were "pale blue. They had died of suffocation," said the activist, Abu Ahmad.

"We buried the victims in the middle of the night, because the area we use as a cemetery is within sight of the army," Abu Ahmad told AFP in an Internet interview from rebel-held Moadamiyet al-Sham town, southwest of Damascus.

"They've shelled it many times before, it's dangerous to go there."

The quiet, rushed burials on Wednesday night added to the trauma of the relatives, he said.

Activists in several towns surrounding Damascus raised the alarm on Wednesday, saying they suspected troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were unleashing chemical weapons.

"The army used rockets at 5:00 am (0200 GMT on Wednesday), mounted with chemical warheads to target Moadamiyet al-Sham," said Abu Ahmad, whose town bore the brunt of the attacks, suffering the highest death toll.

The Syrian authorities have vehemently denied deploying chemical weapons, saying to do so while a team of UN inspectors is in the country would be "political suicide".

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, some 170 people were killed in the attacks. The opposition National Coalition put the toll at 1,300.

Wednesday's attacks around Damascus were among the deadliest of Syria's 29-month conflict.

A day later, as the international community and human rights organisations demanded unfettered access to the affected areas for the UN weapons inspectors, Moadamiyet al-Sham's residents voiced fears of further devastation.

"People are very scared that there might be a new attack. The army is trying to break into the town, and the chemical attack was part of that attempt," said Abu Ahmad.

The activist said clashes pitting rebels against troops were raging on the edges of the town but that the army had only been able to make temporary advances.

Activists east of Damascus reported similar attempts by the army to storm rebel enclaves on the same day as the reported chemical strikes.

Activist Abu Adel told AFP he had spent the whole of Wednesday in Ain Terma on the outskirts of the capital, helping local activists film and document the killings.

After the early morning attack, "people who were on the streets felt nauseous and started collapsing", he said.

But "at that hour, most people were asleep in their homes, with their families. That's why so many of the victims were children", he added.

"Hours later I also started to feel the effects of the chemicals. My eyes became sore, and it became difficult to breathe. I had a very, very bad headache," said the activist.

Activists have posted dozens of amateur videos on YouTube purporting to show the effects of the attack, including footage of dozens of corpses, many of them children's, outstretched on the ground.

The videos, which have not been independently authenticated, show sites allegedly hit by chemical weapons attacks in Zamalka, Irbin, Saqba, Harasta and Ain Terma east of the capital, and Moadamiyet al-Sham to the southwest.

"Twenty-nine rockets hit Eastern Ghouta, all within 10 minutes of each other. Most of the rockets (east of the capital) hit Ain Terma," said Abu Adel.

"The children's bodies were separated from the adults'. The families of the women asked us not to film them, because people in this area are very conservative," he added.

The bodies of the dead were taken from their homes or field hospitals to houses being used as makeshift morgues, where the activists filmed them.

Abu Ahmad also said dozens of people got to work in makeshift field hospitals to try to treat the wounded, corroborating accounts from Wednesday that none of the volunteers had the equipment needed to handle patients suffering from gas attacks.

"Many of the doctors are now showing the symptoms. Some of the people who were transporting wounded yesterday have now died," said Abu Adel.

The Observatory says only an independent inquiry in areas where the alleged attacks took place can establish whether chemical agents were used.

Regardless of the nature of the weapons used, however, "it is clear the bombardment was extremely fierce and arbitrary, making no distinction between civilians and combatants", said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

Calling on the Syrian authorities to allow the UN inspectors to investigate the sites, Abdel Rahman added: "The world needs to know how the victims died."

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