By Marah Mashi
Damascus, (Al-Akhbar): Just as the Syrian army was preparing to launch a major ground offensive on the outskirts of Damascus on Wednesday morning, reports emerged of a horrific massacre – possibly due to the use of a deadly gas – that took the lives of dozens of civilians.
All the fronts on the outskirts of Damascus lit up at once on Wednesday morning, August 21, as government troops were preparing to move against opposition fighters surrounding the capital. A volley of heavy shelling was followed by terrifying reports and images of scores of civilians, including many children, killed by what appeared to be a chemical attack, which the opposition immediately blamed on the government.
Some of the casualty numbers reported by opposition sources may be exaggerated, with more independent sources claiming between tens and a hundred. The dead were filmed laid out side by side in field hospitals and mosques, without any signs of wounds or blood anywhere, thus suggesting they were attacked by some sort of chemical agent.
Many fled the embattled areas like Muadhamiya to the south as army tanks lined their street early in the morning, preparing to make their move against the opposition fighters they have been fighting in the capital’s suburbs for months now, gaining the upper hand on most fronts. Some of those who fled the area are dismissive of the idea that the army would use chemical weapons in these confrontations.
One resident explains that the warring sides are engaged in fighting at such a close range that it makes the use of such weapons by government forces counterproductive. “We left our houses knowing that a few meters separated the Syrian soldiers from the fighters, which makes the use of these weapons unlikely,” the man adds.
The Syrian authorities, for their part, denied that chemical weapons were used by the army, suggesting that the whole affair is a desperate attempt by the opposition to undermine the mission of the UN weapons inspectors who arrived only two days prior to the massacre to investigate the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Damascus said the incident was fabricated to help opposition fighters break the siege imposed upon them by the army over the course of intense fighting for the past several months around the capital. Syria’s Minister of Information Omran al-Zohby went so far as to blame the other side for committing the massacre, saying that the opposition has chemical weapons.
The accusation that the regime is responsible for the attack comes after the Syrian government had just concluded an agreement with the UN to allow weapons inspectors inside the country.
In the meantime, the tragic massacre has done little to diminish the intense shelling by both sides. Many predict worse days to come for Damascus, as the army command has decided to continue with its military assault on opposition-held areas in the capital’s suburbs despite the humanitarian calamity.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.