Dozens treated for breathing problems after raids on Syria's Ghouta

Syrian children and adults receive treatment for a suspected chemical attack at a makeshift clinic on the rebel-held village of al-Shifuniyah in the Eastern Ghoutaregion on the outskirts of the capital Damascus late on Feb 25, 2018.
Syrian children and adults receive treatment for a suspected chemical attack at a makeshift clinic on the rebel-held village of al-Shifuniyah in the Eastern Ghoutaregion on the outskirts of the capital Damascus late on Feb 25, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT (AFP, REUTERS) - Dozens of people were treated for breathing difficulties after air strikes slammed into Syria's Eastern Ghouta late Wednesday (March 7), a monitor said, with medics reporting symptoms consistent with a toxic attack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 60 people in the besieged rebel enclave were left struggling to breathe after air strikes and barrel bombs hit the towns of Saqba and Hammuriyeh.

Doctors at one medical facility in Eastern Ghouta said they treated at least 29 patients with signs of exposure to chlorine, according to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).

SAMS is a medical charity that supports hospitals in eastern Ghouta and other rebel-controlled zones in Syria.

It did not report any deaths but said it was likely that more victims were being treated at other clinics.

"Due to chlorine attack in #EastGhouta, patients are struggling w/symptoms such as severe dyspnea, sweating, congestion of mucus membranes, severe runny nose, wheezing & conjunctival erythema," SAMS wrote on social media late Wednesday.

"The emotional trauma from these attacks can not be measured."

Dyspnea is shortness of breath. Conjunctival erythema is redness of the eye caused by dilation of the blood vessels.

Eastern Ghouta is facing a blistering offensive by Russian-backed government forces and allied militiamen, who are seeking to clear out rebels from the capital's outskirts.

Regime forces have been repeatedly accused of using chlorine on eastern Ghouta in recent weeks, which both the government and its ally Russia have staunchly denied.

United Nations investigators say government forces used chlorine as a weapon at least three times between 2014 and 2015, as well as sarin gas in 2016.

The latest assault on Eastern Ghouta began with a intense bombing campaign on Feb 18, followed by a ground offensive.

The bombardment has continued despite a one-month ceasefire demanded by the UN Security Council more than a week ago.

'Apocalypse'

The council met behind closed doors for three hours on Wednesday to discuss the failed truce, after France and Britain requested urgent talks.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Thursday pressed Russia and Iran to use their influence over Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to ensure Damascus respects the UN resolution calling for a ceasefire.

Le Drian also reiterated that France will respond if it is proven chemical weapons have been used and killed people.

Government forces have since captured more than half of the rebel-held parts of the area and killed more than 890 civilians, according to the Britain-based Observatory.

The toll includes at least 87 people killed on Wednesday.

Air strikes continued to hit the remaining rebel-controlled parts of Ghouta on Thursday (March 8).

An aid convoy planned for Thursday to bring assistance to besieged civilians in Syria's rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta will not go through, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

"The convoy for today is postponed, as the situation is evolving on the ground, which doesn't allow us to carry out the operation in such conditions," ICRC spokeswoman Ingy Sedky told AFP.

It marks the second time this week that desperately needed aid operations to Eastern Ghouta have been disrupted by military developments.

On Monday, 46 trucks of assistance entered the area in the first aid provision since a new offensive against the enclave began on Feb 18 - but they had to cut their deliveries short and leave due to heavy bombardment.