The chemical weapons watchdog has concluded that a Syrian air force helicopter dropped two cylinders of poisonous chlorine gas on two residential buildings in a rebel-held town five years ago.
The world’s chemical weapons watchdog has concluded there are “reasonable grounds” to believe Syrian government forces carried out a chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held town that killed dozens of people nearly five years ago.
On April 7, 2018, at least one helicopter belonging to the Syrian Army’s elite Tiger Forces “dropped two yellow canisters of poisonous chlorine gas on two residential buildings in a civilian-populated area of Douma, killing 43 named individuals and affecting dozens of others,” Organization inspectors for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said in a report released on Friday.
The watchdog said it reached its conclusions after analyzing physical evidence, including 70 environmental and biomedical samples; 66 witness statements; and other verified data, such as forensic analyzes and satellite images.
It noted that the “reasonable grounds” degree of certainty is a standard of proof consistently accepted by international fact-finding bodies and commissions of inquiry investigating potential violations of international law.
“The world now knows the facts – it’s up to the international community to take action, at the OPCW and beyond,” said the organization’s director general, Fernando Arias.
“The use of chemical weapons in Douma – and anywhere – is unacceptable and a violation of international law,” he said.
The use of chlorine in weapons is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria ratified in 2013, and is also prohibited by customary international humanitarian law.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government did not immediately comment, but in the past has denied allegations of chemical weapons use as a “fabrication.”
The OPCW has already found Syrian government forces responsible for using the nerve agent sarin and chlorine barrel bombs on several occasions during the long-running conflict, which began with demonstrations against al-Assad in 2011 but soon escalated into an all-out war between government forces and rebels fraction.
Douma – located in Eastern Ghouta, a large suburb of Damascus – has become a stronghold of opposition fighters. Much of the area has been under siege by government forces or pro-government armed groups since 2013.
In 2019, OPCW investigators determined that toxic chemicals had been used as a weapon in Douma the previous year, but did not assign blame.
On Friday, the watchdog said one of the cylinders dropped by a Syrian Air Force Mi8/17 helicopter “hit the roof of a three-story building without fully penetrating, ruptured and quickly released a poisonous gas – chlorine – in a very high concentration, which quickly dispersed inside the building”, killing at least 17 women, 10 girls, nine boys and seven men.
The second cylinder hit the roof of another building that was unoccupied at the time, breaking into an apartment below. “It ruptured only partially and began to slowly release chlorine, mildly affecting those who arrived first on the scene,” the report said.
Harrowing videos and reports collected by Al Jazeera in 2018 described children and mothers struggling for oxygen as their mouths filled with white foam. Symptoms of chlorine attack include difficulty breathing, coughing, and intense irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.
The attack in Douma caused widespread international outrage, leading to airstrikes by Britain, France and the United States against Syrian government positions.