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New strikes pound Syria’s Ghouta after alleged gas attack

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Reuters

BEIRUT (AFP) – Fresh air strikes hit rebel-held areas of Syria’s Eastern Ghouta yesterday, a monitor said, after more than 80 people were killed in weekend raids including an alleged chemical attack denounced by the US.

Yesterday’s strikes came despite reports of a ceasefire and the potential resumption of talks between Syria’s regime and Jaish al-Islam, the last rebel faction in Ghouta.

Allegations of a chlorine gas attack on Saturday were causing widespread international concern, but Syrian state media and regime ally Russia denounced the claims as “fabrications”.

Syrian forces renewed their assault on Douma, the last rebel-controlled town in Eastern Ghouta, on Friday after talks over an evacuation of Jaish al-Islam fighters broke down.

The regime has used a fierce military onslaught and two negotiated withdrawals to retake control of 95 percent of Eastern Ghouta, once the main rebel stronghold close to Damascus.

At least 80 civilians have been killed since Friday after the regime launched fresh air raids, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Observatory also reported that dozens of people had suffered breathing problems following the attacks, but could not identify the cause.

The White Helmets, who act as first responders in rebel-held areas of Syria, alleged that regime forces had used “poisonous chlorine gas” in the attacks.

Footage posted by the group online, which was not possible to verify, showed victims including children foaming at the mouth.

There were conflicting reports on the number of dead in the alleged gas attack, with the White Helmets reporting between 40 and 70 killed.

The Observatory said that 11 of those who died at the weekend, including four children, had suffered breathing problems after the raids.

The Syrian regime has been repeatedly accused of using chemical weapons, with the United Nations among those blaming government forces for a deadly sarin gas attack on the opposition-held village of Khan Sheikhun in April 2017.

That attack prompted Washington to launch military strikes against a regime military base.

Major General Yuri Yevtushenko, head of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of the Warring Sides in Syria, denied the claims.

Yesterday morning, a civilian committee taking part in the talks between the rebels and Russia announced “a ceasefire and the resumption of talks today” hoping it will lead to a “final accord”.

Since February 18, the Syrian regime’s Ghouta offensive has killed more than 1,600 civilians and sliced the area into three isolated pockets, each held by different rebel factions.

The first two were evacuated under Russian-brokered deals that saw more than 46,000 rebels and civilians bussed to opposition-held Idlib province in the northwest.

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