Alleged chemical attack is brutal end to Syrian town


Associated Press

BEIRUT

The suspected chemical weapons attack on Douma was a brutal finale for a town that had haunted Syrian President Bashar Assad for seven years from right on his doorstep.

The leafy suburb on Damascus’ outskirts was the bastion of one of the toughest, most disciplined Islamist factions in Syria’s rebellion, raining mortars on Assad’s seat of power and holding out for years under devastating siege.

Russia and the United States have traded threats of military strikes and counterstrikes since the April 7 attack, which first responders and activists say killed more than 40 people and blamed on Assad’s forces. Syria has denied any such attack even took place.

On Friday, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed the attack was fake and accused Britain of staging it, a bold charge vehemently denied by Britain as “a blatant lie.”

Also on Friday evening, President Donald Trump ordered military strikes against Syria.

The suspected chemical strike came after weeks of an intense air campaign that killed an estimated 1,600 people and tore the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta apart, leveling towns in an enclave that once housed 400,000 people, according to U.N. estimates.

A resident of Douma, an economist who fled the town amid threats to his life in 2015 and now lives in exile, said eight of his neighbors – two women and their six children – were found dead three days after the suspected chemical attack and were believed to have suffocated in their underground shelter from the poisonous gas. He said two of his aunts were still missing.

“There were plenty of bloody attacks before the use of chemical weapons, and no one moved,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared for the safety of his family now living under government control. “Only now and after seven years of destruction, the U.S. and the world remembered it was time to punish Assad?”

Hours after the attack, the Army of Islam rebel group, which had controlled Douma since 2012, agreed to surrender and evacuate its fighters to rebel-held northern Syria. The militants also gave up their prisoners, a key demand of the Syrian government, and handed over their heavy weapons and maps of tunnels built over the years to navigate the sprawling neighborhood. The last batch of rebel fighters left Douma on Friday, heading to Jarablus, a town in northern Syria controlled by Turkey-backed rebels and with a Turkish military presence.

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