Assad accused of using poison gas again
Syrian opposition activists on Thursday accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of again using poison gas in rebel-held areas, saying victims had been discovered with swollen limbs and foaming at the mouth.
The activists told Reuters that two shells loaded with gas hit a rebel-held area in the town of Nabak, 68 km (40 miles) northeast of Damascus, on a major highway in the Qalamoun region. They reported seven casualties.
“Seven men are reported ill so far. They have swollen limbs and foam coming out of their mouths,” an activist calling himself Amer al-Qalamouni told Reuters.
Qalamouni added: “No doctors have got to them yet because Nabak is under ferocious bombardment and there are very few medical staff left.”
Amir Kazk, another activist in Nabak, said the two shells were part of a heavy barrage that hit the Tariq al-Mashfa district near the center of the town. The source of the fire, he added, appeared to be an army barracks on a hill in the nearby Deir Attiya area.
Video footage posted on YouTube by activists showed a man who said he had seen white smoke from the shelling, inhaled it and then passed out. Reuters cannot confirm its authenticity.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union also accused Assad’s forces of using poison gas and put the number of casualties at nine.
“We have documented nine casualties from poison gas used by the regime in neighborhoods of Nabak,” Reuters quoted the union as saying on its Facebook page.
A U.S. official in Washington said: “We have seen the reports, but have no confirmation.”
On Aug. 21, a nerve gas attack killed hundreds of people in rebel-held neighborhoods on the edge of Damascus. Each side blamed the other.
Opposition groups have accused Assad’s regime of using chemical weapons several times before and since the Aug. 21 incident that drew international condemnation.
To stave off a U.S. strike on Syria after the incident, Assad agreed to dismantle the country’s chemical weapons arsenal under a deal struck between Moscow and Washington.
International inspectors have already begun work on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons facilities. They set mid-2014 as their deadline to finally remove chemical weapons from Syria.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which won the Nobel Peace Prize in October, is overseeing plans to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal under an agreement that averted U.S. missile strikes earlier this year.
U.S. to conduct sea test
Meanwhile, the United States will conduct a sea test this month of equipment that could be used to neutralize Syria’s most deadly chemical weapons at sea, Reuters reported a U.S. defense officials as saying on Thursday.
Two large chemical neutralization units, which employ a process known as hydrolysis to render toxic chemicals safe enough to be disposed of at commercial sites, are being installed below deck on the Cape Ray, a U.S. Merchant Marine
“This is a proven technology,” a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters at the Pentagon. “The chemicals and their reactions are very well understood.”
The hydrolysis technology, which turns dangerous chemicals into a low-toxicity liquid waste, has been used to destroy other hazardous materials in the United States. But if the initiative moves forward, it would be the first time the system is used to destroy such materials at sea.
A sea trial of the equipment aboard the Cape Ray is planned for later this month, Pentagon officials said.
The U.S. official said stockpiles that would be destroyed at sea would include mustard gas and materials used to make the nerve agent sarin. The destruction would take between 45 and 90 days.
The ship, which could be ready within weeks, will be manned by about 100 people, including Pentagon employees and contractors, who will use protective equipment when treating the chemicals.
“Our assessment is that the risks from the neutralization operations are very low,” one of the officials said.
It’s not yet clear where the Cape Ray would pick up the Syrian chemicals, or where the offshore destruction would take place. The U.S. official said that none of the liquid created by the hydrolysis process would be dumped at sea but would be stored at an undetermined location.