New strikes pound Syria’s Ghouta after alleged gas attack

The Hindu, April 08, 2018

The latest attacks come
despite reports of a ceasefire and the potential resumption of talks between
Syria’s regime and Jaish al-Islam, the last rebel faction in Eastern Ghouta, on
the outskirts of Damascus.
Smoke billows in the town
of Douma, the last opposition holdout in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, on April 7,
2018, after Syrian regime troops resumed a military blitz to pressure rebels to
withdraw. Photo Credit: AFP
Fresh air strikes hit
rebel-held areas of Syria’s Eastern Ghouta on April 8, a monitor said, after
more than 80 people were killed in weekend raids including an alleged chemical
attack denounced by the United States and Pope Francis.
The April 8 strikes came
despite reports of a ceasefire and the potential resumption of talks between
Syria’s regime and Jaish al-Islam, the last rebel faction in Ghouta.
Allegations of a chlorine
gas attack on April 7 were causing widespread international concern, but Syrian
state media and regime ally Russia denounced the claims as “fabrications”.
Assad’s forces renewed
their assault on Douma, the last rebel-controlled town in Eastern Ghouta, on
April 6 after talks over an evacuation of Jaish al-Islam fighters broke down.
The regime has used a
fierce military onslaught and two negotiated withdrawals to retake control of
95% of Eastern Ghouta, once the main rebel stronghold close to Damascus.
It appeared last week that
Douma would follow suit, with the evacuation of hundreds of rebels and their
families, but there were reports of divisions among the rebels with hardliners
refusing to go.
At least 80 civilians have
been killed since April 6 after the regime launched fresh air raids, according
to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.
The Observatory also
reported that dozens of people had suffered breathing problems following the
attacks, but could not identify the cause.
The White Helmets, who act
as first responders in rebel-held areas of Syria, alleged
that regime forces had used “poisonous chlorine gas” in the attacks. Footage
posted by the group online, which was not possible to verify, showed victims
including children foaming at the mouth. There were conflicting reports on the
number of dead in the alleged gas attack, with the White Helmets reporting
between 40 and 70 killed.
The Observatory said that
11 of those who died at the weekend, including four children, had suffered
breathing problems after the raids. “These reports, if confirmed, are
horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community,”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. “The
Assad regime and its backers must be held accountable,” she said. “Russia, with
its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility for
these brutal attacks.”
Pope Francis too have
condemned the suspected attack. “Terrible news comes to us from Syria with
dozens of victims, many of them women and children… so many people are struck
by the effects of the chemical substances in the bombs,” the Pope told
thousands of people gathered in St Peter’s Square on April 8.
The Syrian regime has been
repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons, with the United Nations among
those blaming government forces for a deadly sarin gas
attack on the opposition-held village of Khan Sheikhun
in April
That attack prompted
Washington to launch military strikes against a regime military base.
Major General Yuri
Yevtushenko, head of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of the Warring Sides
in Syria, denied the claims. “We are ready, once Douma is freed from militants,
to immediately send Russian specialists in radiation, chemical and biological
defence to collect data that will confirm these claims are fabricated,” he said
in comments reported by Russian news agencies.
Resumption of talks
On the morning of April 8,
a civilian committee taking part in the talks between the rebels and Russia
announced “a ceasefire and the resumption of talks today” hoping it will lead
to a “final accord”.
State news agency SANA
also reported that talks would begin within several hours.
Mr. Assad is keen to
recapture Ghouta to eliminate the opposition from the outskirts of Damascus and
end years of rocket fire on the capital. Since February 18, the regime’s Ghouta
offensive has killed more than 1,600 civilians and sliced the area into three
isolated pockets, each held by different rebel factions.
The first two were
evacuated under Russian-brokered deals that saw more than 46,000 rebels and
civilians bussed to opposition-held Idlib Province in the northwest. Tens of
thousands also fled into government-controlled territory through safe passages
opened by Russia and Syrian troops.
Moscow also stepped in to
negotiate a deal for Douma, the third and final pocket where Jaish al-Islam had
been angling for a reconciliation agreement that would allow its members to
remain as a police force.

Following a preliminary
accord announced by Russia on April 1, nearly 3,000 fighters and civilians were
evacuated from Douma to northern Syria. But as talks dragged on, Syria and
Russia threatened Jaish al-Islam with a renewed military assault if the group
did not agree to withdraw.