France's Le Monde says chemical weapons used in Syria

PARIS (REUTERS) - Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad have repeatedly used chemical weapons against rebel fighters in Damascus, according to first-hand accounts in France's Le Monde newspaper.

The newspaper, in a report issued on its website on Monday, said one of its photographers had suffered blurred vision and respiratory difficulties for four days after an attack on April 13 on the Jobar front, just inside central Damascus.

President Assad's government and the rebels fighting to oust him have accused each other of using chemical weapons. United Nations (UN) investigators have been ready for weeks, but diplomatic wrangling and safety concerns have delayed their entry into Syria.

Undercover in and around the Damascus area for two months alongside Syrian rebels, a Le Monde reporter and photographer said they had witnessed battlefield chemical attacks and had also talked to doctors and other witnesses of their aftermath.

They describe men coughing violently, their eyes burning, their pupils shrinking.

"Soon they experience difficulty breathing, sometimes in the extreme; they begin to vomit or lose consciousness. The fighters worst affected need to be evacuated before they suffocate," Le Monde wrote.

"Reporters from Le Monde witnessed this on several days in a row in this district, on the outskirts of Damascus, which the rebels entered in January," it said.

Syria, which is not a member of the anti-chemical weapons convention, is believed to have one of the world's last remaining stockpiles of undeclared chemical arms.

"In two months spent reporting on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, we encountered similar cases across a much larger region.

Their gravity, their increasing frequency and the tactic of using such arms shows that what is being released is not just tear gas, which is used on all fronts, but products of a different class that are far more toxic," Le Monde wrote.

This month, Ms Carla Del Ponte, a member of a UN inquiry commission looking at alleged war crimes in Syria, said it had gathered testimony from casualties and medical staff indicating that rebel forces had used the banned nerve agent sarin. Western governments have said they have no such evidence.

Syria's revolt began with peaceful protests in March 2011 inspired by Arab uprisings elsewhere. President Assad's violent response to the unrest eventually led to an armed insurgency.

The war has developed into an increasingly sectarian conflict pitting members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, against mostly Sunni Muslim rebels.

More than 80,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

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