Syrian Government Accused Again Of Using Chemical Weapons

Anti-government activists in Syria are accusing President Bashar al-Assad's forces of deploying a chemical weapons attack on the suburbs of the capital, Damascus. The government denied the attack, but the allegations have prompted the United Nations to call an emergency meeting. Melissa Block talks to Washington Post reporter Loveday Morris for more.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The video footage pouring out of Syria is horrifying: scores of limp, lifeless men, women and many children, some in burial shrouds, some sprawled on the floors of makeshift hospitals. Others, still alive, are convulsing, choking or gasping for breath. Syrian activists accuse President Bashar al-Assad's forces of launching a huge chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus.

Opposition groups put the death toll anywhere between 100 and more than 1,000, but those numbers and responsibility for the attack can't be confirmed. The Syrian regime calls the accusations absolutely baseless, a fabrication. The U.N. secretary-general says he's shocked by the reports. The White House is deeply concerned. We'll hear more about the international response in a moment.

But first to Beirut, where Loveday Morris is following the story for The Washington Post, trying to piece together accounts of what happened. And what are you hearing from Syrians who live in these Damascus suburbs about the rocket attacks last night?

LOVEDAY MORRIS: What we're hearing from the ground is that rocket attacks started about 2:00 a.m. in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. People were brought in to medical centers shortly after those rockets came down with symptoms that appear to be the results of a chemical attack - convulsions, vomiting, very disturbing reports. People on the ground are saying that people were running out of their houses, people were collapsing in the streets.

A lot of panic, obviously. People didn't know how to react or what was going on. Mothers dousing their children's clothes in water and putting it over their mouths. There was one person we spoke to that said he saw the rocket come in and he said it was like nothing he'd seen before, and it was notable because there was no explosion.

BLOCK: We should mention that if you look at these horrific images, the bodies of the victims don't show any signs of obvious trauma that might have come from a conventional weapons attack.

MORRIS: Right. Which obviously raises the question as to what else could have killed these people, other than some kind of toxic gas. There were reports this morning at the same time as these rockets allegedly fell of increased shelling, but a lot of the videos we're seeing, yes, there's not a lot of blood on the victims. It appears not to be from shelling.

BLOCK: What can you tell us about these neighborhoods where these attacks took place? Are they known to be a stronghold of the opposition?

MORRIS: Yes. The eastern Gutah(ph), it's been contested for a long time, but it's definitely known as being an area of strong support for the opposition. There's been a front line there for a long time. There were some reports that rebels were making gains there, so that's potentially one of the reasons, if this was an attack by the Syrian government, that they might have felt compelled to act.

There were as many as seven rockets that fell, according to activists.

BLOCK: This does come just as a U.N. team of chemical weapons experts is in Syria. They're supposed to be investigating reports of past chemical weapons attacks. And it raises the question, why would Bashar al-Assad launch a poison gas attack with investigators right there in Damascus?

MORRIS: Right. Well, this is the question that everyone's asking today. Some analysts I've been speaking to have said never in the past has the presence of international observers or monitors stopped them acting with impunity. I mean, it does seem very brazen for them to launch an attack of this size with U.N. weapons inspectors in the country at the time, but the West has said on multiple occasions if these red lines are crossed, there will be action.

And I think their government has obviously reached a stage where they feel that there won't be any consequences.

BLOCK: Loveday Morris is a Washington Post contributor in Beirut. Miss Morris, thanks for talking with us.

MORRIS: Thank you very much.

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