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Syrian Government Blamed In Chemical Attack That Killed Dozens

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin with the report of a chemical attack on the town of Douma. That's a town under rebel control near the Syrian capital, Damascus. Here's where we want to tell you that some graphic and disturbing descriptions are forthcoming. Doctors and local activists say dozens of people, many of them children, have died from a chemical agent that left them foaming at the mouth, struggling for breath. President Trump commented on Twitter. He blamed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and called out Vladimir Putin by name, as well as Iran for supporting Assad. We'll have more reaction from Washington, including from a Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But we begin our coverage with this report from our correspondent in the Middle East, Ruth Sherlock.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: The camera pans over the lifeless bodies of men, women and children as they lie, some on top of each other, on a carpeted floor. Their expressions are still frozen in terror. In this video, filmed by activists in the rebel-held town of Ghouta and posted on social media, many of the victims have foam at the mouth. Dead children lie among the adults. Even in death, a man hugs a small baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: In another video posted by opposition activists there, a veiled woman stands in a room and points to the bodies of lifeless children laid out on the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Doctors and opposition groups say dozens of people died after showing symptoms caused by a chemical agent.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The number which nobody argue about is 42 civilians.

SHERLOCK: This is a doctor with UOSSM, the medical Association has workers in Douma. He's not in Syria, but he asked not to give his name, as he fears not being able to return there. He says there were two separate attacks on Saturday night. After the first attack, many victims were able to make it to medical clinics.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: They were walking. They came to the medical points. And they had respiratory difficulties. Some of them needed ventilators.

SHERLOCK: He says doctors there reported six deaths. But then, around half an hour later, reports started coming in of a second chemical bomb. This time, though, he says most victims didn't make it to the hospital.

ABDEL MALIK: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Abdel Malik is an opposition activist in Douma. He says there was heavy bombardment, so it was hard for rescue workers to reach the site. But when they did, he said they found the bodies of dozens of civilians who died in their homes.

MALIK: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Doctors say the symptoms are consistent with chlorine gas. Chlorine has been reportedly used as a weapon frequently in the Syrian war.

ELIOT HIGGINS: To me, it seems like this is a clear example of a chlorine attack almost certainly executed by helicopters. They dropped two chlorine cylinders on top of Douma.

SHERLOCK: Eliot Higgins is the founder of the open source investigation website Bellingcat. He studied the video footage from the Douma attack. If chlorine gas was used, it would be by far the highest death toll for a chlorine attack in Syria. But Higgins says this could be explained by where the bombs hit.

HIGGINS: Here you've got a direct hit on a building that is reportedly - it was full of refugees and people hiding from bombing.

SHERLOCK: He says the gas would likely have sunk to the lower floors and the basement of the building, killing those who hid inside. The attack has drawn international condemnation, even as the Syrian government and its ally, Russia, denies responsibility. For the people of Douma, though, it's the latest atrocity in years of violence. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.