US says monitoring reports of possible Syrian chemical weapon attack on Douma

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The US is monitoring reports of a possible chemical weapon attack in Syria and said Russia should be held responsible if the incident did involve deadly chemicals, the State Department said on Saturday.

The statement came after a Syrian rebel group accused government forces on Saturday of dropping a barrel bomb containing poisonous chemicals on civilians in eastern Ghouta.

“The regime’s history of using chemical weapons against its own people in not in dispute,” said the State Department. “Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the brutal targeting of countless Syrians with chemical weapons.”

35 killed in barrel bomb attack

A Syrian rebel group accused government forces on Saturday of dropping a barrel bomb containing poisonous chemicals on civilians in eastern Ghouta, and a medical relief organization said 35 people had been killed in chemical attacks on the area.

Syrian state media denied government forces had launched any chemical attack as soon as the reports began circulating and said rebels in the eastern Ghouta town of Douma were in a state of collapse and spreading false news.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 people had died in Douma as a result of suffocation caused by the smoke from conventional weapons being dropped by the government. It said a total of 70 people suffered breathing difficulties.

Rami Abdulrahman, the Observatory director, said he could not confirm if chemical weapons had been used.

Medical relief organization Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) said a chlorine bomb hit Douma hospital, killing six people, and a second attack with “mixed agents” including nerve agents had hit a nearby building.

Basel Termanini, the US-based vice president of SAMS, told Reuters the total death toll in the chemical attacks was 35. “We are contacting the UN and the US government and the European governments,” he said by telephone.

Reuters could not independently verify the reports.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the rebel group in Douma, Jaish al-Islam, was making “chemical attack fabrications in an exposed and failed attempt to obstruct advances by the Syrian Arab army,” citing an official source.

30 civilians killed in air strikes

Syrian regime air strikes killed at least 30 civilians on Saturday in the last rebel pocket in the former opposition bastion of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, a war monitor said.

Eight children were among the dead in the rebel-held Syrian town of Douma according to the updated toll from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on sources on the ground.

The air strikes pounded the town on Saturday, after a night of heavy bombing on the opposition holdout outside Damascus.

"The bombing still hasn't stopped. There are three warplanes in the sky and two helicopters," Firas al-Doumi, a rescue worker inside Douma, told AFP on Saturday morning.

Douma is the last rebel-controlled town in Syria's Eastern Ghouta, a sprawling suburb of Damascus that was once the opposition's bastion on the edge of the capital.

Backed by Russia, Syrian troops have recaptured 95 percent of Ghouta through a fierce air and ground assault, as well as negotiated withdrawals.

In an apparent bid to pressure Jaish al-Islam -- the Islamist group that holds the town -- to withdraw, Syria's government on Friday resumed bombardment of the town after a more than week-long lull.

Air strikes and shelling on Friday left 40 civilians dead including eight children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

The Britain-based Observatory said warplanes were hitting across Douma on Saturday, as regime artillery fire hit neighboring agricultural fields.

Syrian troops matched the renewed bombardment on Friday with a ground operation in the orchards surrounding Douma.

"The regime is trying to tighten the noose around Douma from the west, east, and south," said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

The resumed assault comes after the apparent failure of negotiations between Jaish al-Islam and regime backer Russia over a rebel withdrawal from Douma.

Top Jaish al-Islam political figure Mohammad Alloush on Friday blamed international supporters of Syria's government for hamstringing the talks.

"The talks were going well," he said, but power struggles between the regime's allies had caused them to break down.

"Their only shared interests is the blood of civilians," he wrote on Twitter.