Aid Group: Syrians Likely Exposed to “Neurotoxic Agent”

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Aug. 24 2013 4:31 PM

Doctors Without Borders: Thousands of Patients in Syria Display “Neurotoxic Symptoms”

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Syrian immigrants living in Bulgaria hold a photo showing the bodies of men, women, and children allegedly killed in a chemical attack east of Damascus

Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images

Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, says three hospitals it coordinates and supports in Syria’s Damascus region received approximately 3,600 patients “displaying neurotoxic symptions” within the span of three hours on Wednesday, August 21. Of that total, 355 have died. MSF points out that its staff members have not been able to access the facilities to corroborate the information, but the group highlights that since last year it has “built a strong and reliable collaboration with medical networks, hospitals and medical points” in the region.

“MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” Dr Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations, said in a news release issued by the Paris-based organization. “However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events—characterised by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers—strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent. This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

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Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in England, increased its estimated death toll for Wednesday’s alleged chemical attack to 322, including 54 children.

As the United Nations began to pressure the Syrian government to allow investigators to inspect the site of the alleged chemical attack, the government said the rebels were to blame for the attack. Syria’s information minister said that the Syrian government had proof that the rebels were the ones that launched the chemical attack, notes the Associated Press. "The rockets were fired from their positions and fell on civilians. They are responsible," Omran al-Zoubi said. For his part, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said for the first time Saturday that chemical weapons had killed people in Syria, and called on the international community to prevent their use. Although he never spelled out who was responsible for their use, he said evidence suggests it was the rebels, reports Reuters.

A White House official tells CNN that President Obama was meeting with his national security team Saturday to discuss the alleged attack. "Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond," the official said. For now, U.S. naval forces are moving closer to Syria.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.

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