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World

Syria Denies Report Of Poison Gas Attack In Eastern Ghouta

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We begin with Syria. President Trump has tweeted a reaction to the news of a reported chemical attack there. He's calling out Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key Syria ally, for supporting President Bashar al-Assad. In his tweet, Trump said, quote, "President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay," end quote. Syrian opposition activists say dozens of people have died in Douma, the last rebel-held area in the suburbs of Damascus. But the Syrian military and its allies are making another big push to take it back. Here to help us understand more is NPR's Ruth Sherlock from Beirut. Good morning.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, Ruth, tell us about this chemical attack. What do we know?

SHERLOCK: Well, what we know is that last night, there was a heavy bombardment on Douma. There was a barrage of airstrikes and missile attacks. And then within that, activists and some doctors there said that Douma had also fallen victim to a chemical attack. They reported people coming into hospitals, struggling for breath. An activist posted a video that appeared to show a room full of lifeless men and women lying on the floor of a house with foam at the mouth. Now, a lot of the people that went to hospitals survived, and doctors reported that there were six deaths in the hospital. Civil defense - pro-opposition civil defense volunteers - these rescue workers that went into the houses - say that number is much higher. And they put it around 42 dead.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Very distressing images that we're seeing coming out of Syria. Do we know what kind of chemical may have been used?

SHERLOCK: Well, the doctors that we spoke to say that, basically, the people that came into the hospital had symptoms that matched chlorine gas attacks. Now, chlorine gas is a weapon that has been reported to have been used several times throughout the Syrian war. And whilst terrifying, it tends to have a low death toll. The civil defense workers that went into houses said that the bodies of people they found there seemed to have symptoms that showed something more than chlorine. They also smelled chlorine in the air, but they think that there might be another substance involved, as well. Nobody can say what yet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's been angry reaction to the reports of the chemical attacks from all over the world - as we mentioned, from President Trump. Even the pope has given his reaction. What are they saying?

SHERLOCK: Absolutely. Well, as you said, you know, President Trump there with very strong condemnation. And Russia has come back very strongly. Russia is an Assad of the - an ally of the Assad regime. And he said that these attacks - reports of attacks - are invented and fabricated excuses. And there - sort of seemed to be warning the U.S. against foreign intervention. The pope has been talking about an unjustifiable use of instruments of extermination. So very strong words from leaders around the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what of this - what has the Syrian government itself been saying?

SHERLOCK: The Syrian government itself has been denying these attacks very vociferously, as well. The difficulty here is that at the moment, there's - you know, Douma is an area that's being fought for by the government. This is the last rebel-held area in Eastern Ghouta. And there's interests on both sides in expanding these claims.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And just briefly, we've heard some reports this morning that rebels have surrendered that final town in Eastern Ghouta. We've heard these reports before. What do we know?

SHERLOCK: That's absolutely right. The Syrian government and Russia have said that a deal has been reached whereby Jaysh al-Islam, the last rebel group, would give up prisoners that belonged - pro-regime soldiers that were captured there. And in exchange, they would be given safe passage to Idlib - sorry - to Aleppo province in the north of Syria. This is - Jaysh al-Islam themselves have not confirmed this yet. And in the past, Russia has made these claims of a deal, and the deal has fallen through.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Ruth Sherlock from Beirut, thanks so much.

SHERLOCK: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.