By Raja Abdulrahim
Los Angeles Times
CAIRO — Syrian opposition activists reached in the suburbs of Damascus provided harrowing accounts of what they said were chemical attacks unleashed by the military early Wednesday.
Although descriptions varied, they generally said that the chemical agents were deployed using rockets that landed across a number of towns during an intense round of overnight government bombardments.
Syrian authorities have acknowledged carrying out a major offensive in some of the areas allegedly hit by poison gas, which are rebel strongholds. But the government said that only conventional weapons were used in the battle.
Mazen Shami, an activist who lives near the town of Arbeen, said rockets began hitting the area about 2:30 a.m.; he couldn’t say how many there were.
Residents who had been sleeping in their basements to try to protect themselves from the shelling could not escape the chemicals, he said. Rebel groups descended on the area and began transporting patients to makeshift hospitals.
“It is a sight that cannot be described,” he said.
Video posted on YouTube showed what appeared to be adults and children lying on the floor, some foaming at the mouth and struggling to breath. [Video may be disturbing to some viewers.] Other images provided by activists showed rows of bodies wrapped in white sheets. There were no signs of blood or wounds on most of the people.
Mohammed Salah Deen, an activist reached in Zamalka, said he was awake and hanging out with friends when the first rocket hit his area. He said the sound was different from the explosions they have grown accustomed to hearing, almost like a water balloon popping loudly.
He and his friends, who are part of a volunteer ambulance team, rushed to the scene of the strike. Families stumbled out of their homes and into the street, still dressed in their pajamas, choking and out of breath, he said.
“When we got there, we were shocked by the numbers,” he said via Skype, explosions sounding in the background.
Three makeshift hospitals in Zamalka were quickly overwhelmed and began sending the injured to other towns, he said. But the so-called eastern Ghouta region has been under siege for months and there are shortages of medical supplies.
By early morning, drugs had run out and victims were being treated with water, he said. Shami said medical personnel were attempting to wash out people’s eyes and mouths with soda.
Salah Deen said that a four-person medical team died soon after treating victims and that he was temporarily blinded for about an hour after first responding to help transport victims. His sight returned, he said, but things remained fuzzy.
“I am now at home, but all of the homes have become field hospitals,” he said.
Shelling continued into the afternoon, making it impossible to bury the dead in some areas, the activists said. Shami said people believed it was an attempt to cover up the use of chemical weapons.