Syrian rebels agreed on Sunday to leave Douma near the capital Damascus, state media reported, a day after a suspected chemical attack in the town killed more than 100 civilians, according to the opposition.
Under the agreement reached with the government, all fighters of the Jaish al-Islam rebel faction, which controls Douma, will safely leave for the opposition-held town of Jarabulus in northern Syria. In return, all people in the group's captivity will be released, Syria's state news agency SANA reported, citing an unnamed official source. The deal will be implemented in 48 hours, the agency added without details.
There has been no comment yet from Jaish al-Islam. The reported accord comes hours after aid organizations estimated that more than 70 people were killed in an alleged chemical attack on Douma, the last rebel-controlled pocket of Eastern Ghouta. Damascus and its ally, Russia, have denied this.
US President Donald Trump condemned the purported attack and blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin and the government of Iran for backing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. "Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria," Trump wrote on Twitter. "President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!" he said.
In April last year, Trump ordered airstrikes on Syrian government facilities in the wake of a chemical attack in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, which killed at least 80 people. An investigation by the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) blamed the Syrian government for the April 4, 2017 attack. Pope Francis on Sunday denounced the alleged attack on Douma.
"There is no good or bad war, and nothing, nothing can justify the use of such instruments of extermination against unarmed people and populations," the pontiff said during a service in St Peter's Square. Aid groups and local activists have posted online graphic footage of victims of the suspected chemical assault. "Significant numbers of children" were among the "well over 70 people" killed in the attack in Douma, a spokesman for the international charity Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) told dpa. Ari D'Souza said a smell of chlorine had been reported, but that rescuers believed that sarin gas had also been used, as it sinks, and many of the victims had been found sheltering in basements.
The Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS), an aid group, reported that more than 500 cases, mainly women and children, were brought to medical centres with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent. "Patients have shown signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odor," the group added in a report. In one of the earliest reports, the volunteer rescue group White Helmets wrote on Twitter that a helicopter had dropped a barrel bomb filled with chemicals on Douma, killing at least 40 people and injuring hundreds. These reports could not be independently verified. Russia denied that its allies in the Syrian army used chemical weapons in Douma.
"The allegations that a chlorine barrel bomb had been dropped in Douma by the Syrian armed forces were the work of the so-called independent non-governmental organizations, including the White Helmets, which is widely known for its fake news," Major General Yuri Yevtushenko, a senior Russian commander in Syria, said on Sunday, according to the state news agency TASS. "We strongly reject this information and confirm readiness after Douma is liberated from militants to send Russian specialists in radiation, chemical and biological protection to collect data to confirm that these statements are fabricated," added Yevtushenko, who heads the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of the Warring Sides in Syria, linked to the Russian Defence Ministry.
Earlier Sunday, SANA dismissed reports of the attack as "chemical fabrications" and said that "terrorists" were repeating the allegations "in a blatant attempt to hinder the army's advance." Eastern Ghouta has been besieged by forces loyal to al-Assad for more than four years. In recent weeks, government forces have retaken most of Eastern Ghouta through a combination of ground assaults and Russia-brokered evacuation deals. Should the government recapture all of Eastern Ghouta, it would deal the harshest blow to the rebels since December 2016, when al-Assad's forces regained full control of the northern city of Aleppo following a Russian-backed campaign.Last updated: April 09 2018 12:30 AM
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