Image result for Syria war: At least 70 killed in suspected chemical attack in Douma

At least 70 people have died in a suspected chemical attack in Douma, the last rebel-held town in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, rescuers and medics say.

Volunteer rescue force the White Helmets tweeted graphic images showing several bodies in basements. It said the deaths were likely to rise.

There has been no independent verification of the reports.

Syria has called the allegations of a chemical attack a “fabrication” – as has its main ally, Russia.

The US state department said Russia – with its “unwavering support” for Syria’s government – “ultimately bears responsibility” for the alleged attacks.

  • Syrian warplanes strike rebel enclave
  • Mattis warns Syria over poison gas use
  • ‘We will stay until the end’: A doctor’s battle in Eastern Ghouta

What do we know about the attack?

Several medical, monitoring and activist groups reported details of a chemical attack.

“Seventy people suffocated to death and hundreds are still suffocating,” said Raed al-Saleh, head of the White Helmets. An earlier, now deleted tweet, put the number dead at more than 150.

The pro-opposition Ghouta Media Center tweeted that more than 75 people had “suffocated”, while a further 1,000 people had suffered the effects of the alleged attack.

It blamed a barrel bomb allegedly dropped by a helicopter which it said contained Sarin, a toxic nerve agent.

The Union of Medical Relief Organizations, a US-based charity that works with Syrian hospitals, told the BBC the Damascus Rural Specialty Hospital had confirmed 70 deaths.

Pro-government troops on foot and riding on a tank as they advance towards the town of Douma on 7 AprilImage copyrightAFP/GETTY IMAGES
Image captionPro-government forces are fighting to drive rebels out of Douma

A spokeswoman said there were reports of people being treated for symptoms including convulsions and foaming of the mouth, consistent with nerve or mixed nerve and chlorine gas exposure.

Continued shelling overnight and on Sunday was making it impossible to reach victims.

As the allegations emerged, Syria’s state news agency Sana said the reports were invented by the Jaish al-Islam rebels who remain in control in Douma.

“Jaish al-Islam terrorists are in a state of collapse and their media outlets are [making] chemical attack fabrications in an exposed and failed attempt to obstruct advances by the Syrian Arab army,” Sana said.

Has the Syrian government used chemical weapons before?

In August 2013, rockets containing the nerve agent Sarin were fired at rebel-held areas of the Eastern Ghouta, killing hundreds of people.

A UN mission confirmed the use of Sarin, but it was not asked to state who was responsible. Western powers said only Syrian government forces could have carried out the attack.

In April 2017, more than 80 people died in a Sarin attack on the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, and a joint inquiry by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held the Syrian government responsible.

A rescuer breathes through an oxygen mask after the attack on Khan SheikhounImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionAbout 80 people died and many more were injured in the attack on Khan Sheikhoun

Activists, medics and the US say Syrian government forces dropped bombs containing toxic chlorine gas on rebel-held towns in early 2018.

  • Syria government behind 2017 Sarin attack – UN
  • N Korea ‘helps Syria make chemical weapons’

The joint UN-OPCW mission is investigating the reports. It previously found that government forces have used chlorine as a weapon at least three times during the seven-year civil war.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied ever having used chemical weapons. It maintains that its entire chemical arsenal has been destroyed.

Could there be repercussions for Damascus?

Following the latest attack, the UK Foreign Office urged an international response.

But Russia said allegations of a chemical attack “were staged”.

US President Donald Trump ordered a cruise missile attack against Syria following the Khan Sheikhoun attack a year ago. Last month, the Washington Post newspaper reported that Mr Trump had discussed the possibility of another American attack on Syria with top security officials, but decided not to take action.

Days later, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis warned that it would be “unwise” for Syria to launch chemical attacks.

French President Emmanuel Macron has threatened to strike Syria if the government uses chemical weapons against civilians.

What’s happening in Douma?

Douma is the last rebel-held town in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta region, and is under siege from Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

An intense aerial and ground assault launched on Friday, after talks between Moscow and the rebels broke down, is said to have killed dozens of people.

Before negotiations failed, Jaish al-Islam had been trying to secure a deal that would let its members stay in Douma as a local security force.

  • ‘Deal struck’ over Syrian rebel bastion
  • Why is there a war in Syria?
  • WATCH: A video guide to the war in Syria

More were feared to have been killed in new shelling on Sunday.

State media said six civilians had also died in rebel shelling of the capital Damascus, with 38 injured. Jaish al-Islam denied it was responsible.

A woman with facial injuries receives first aid at an emergency room in Al Mouwasat Hospital, DamascusImage copyrightEPA/SANA
Image captionSyrian state media said civilians in the suburbs of Damascus had been killed and injured by rebel mortar fire

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have recaptured almost the entire Eastern Ghouta region through a fierce offensive that started in February.

More than 1,600 people are reported to have been killed and thousands injured.