MOSCOW, August 24 (RIA Novosti) – An international medical charity working with hospitals in the Syrian capital on Saturday issued a statement saying that thousands of people were hospitalized in Damascus in less than three hours on August 21 with “neurotoxic symptoms.”
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, works in conflict zones around the world supporting local medical professionals. On Saturday, amid conflicting claims over the use of chemical weapons in fighting in the Syrian capital earlier in the week, the humanitarian group shared information it has received from partner-hospitals on the ground.
“Medical staff working in these facilities provided detailed information to MSF doctors regarding large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress,” the statement cited MSF’s director of operations Dr. Bart Janssens as saying.
The statement says that, according to information it has received, 355 of the 3,600 people treated reportedly died.
In its statement, MSF made clear that it cannot say with any certainty who or what caused these symptoms, but did say that this “strongly indicates mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”
This report comes as the United Nations’ disarmament affairs high representative, Angela Kane, arrived in Syria to push for access to sites where alleged attacks took place, joining a team of UN experts to look into these latest reports of the use of nerve agents.
These claims relate to intense fighting in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, previous claims arose in March over fighting in Aleppo.
Responding to the MSF statement, Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt posted a message on the microblogging site Twitter saying: "There is now further confirmation of deadly chemical attack in Syria. UN inspectors must be granted immediate access."
Also on Saturday, international news agencies reported Syrian state TV showed footage of what it claimed was evidence that rebels had used chemical weapons against armed forces fighting for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Opposition activists within Syria and based abroad, who back the rebel groupings fighting to oust Assad from power, have claimed that over 130 people died in an alleged gas attack on rebel-held areas of Damascus on Wednesday.
Both sides have publicly denied using chemical weapons.
Russian foreign ministry officials have suggested that claims that chemical weapons have been used could be “provocation” that could be aimed at undermining nascent peace talks.
Officials in other countries, however, are more definite: on August 22, a senior Israeli official said that, based on “intelligence estimates,” chemical weapons were used in this attack.
On Friday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry talked about these claims over the phone. According to a statement on the Russian Foreign Ministry website, they agreed that an “unbiased investigation by the UN experts who are currently in the country” is needed.
On Saturday morning, US President Barack Obama met with national security officials to discuss the country’s approach to the ongoing Syrian crisis.
Also on Saturday, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed the Syrian issue with his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, a statement posted on the foreign ministry website says.
The unrest in Syria began in March 2011 and later escalated into a civil war. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far, according to the UN. This week, UN figures put the number of child refugees fleeing the violence in Syria at over 1 million.
Updated with tweet by Sweden's Carl Bildt, details from statement re numbers hospitalized and numbers of dead, and added detail on Kane's mission to Syria