Aid workers in Syria have described desperate efforts to preserve evidence of a chemical weapons attack after international inspectors were finally given access to Douma.
After a lengthy delay the scientists from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) were allowed to take samples at the weekend from the site of an attack on April 7 on the former rebel stronghold near Damascus. The Assad regime is accused of using chemical weapons to kill more than 40 people.
Britain, the US and France carried out retaliatory strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities a week later, and have since accused the regime of trying to hide the evidence.
Local residents, fearing the same, said that despite heavy shelling they were able to bury some of the victims in particular locations to try to preserve the evidence.
“We shared the co-ordinates of the graves with the OPCW experts,” Raed Saleh, a spokesman for the White Helmets, the civil defence organisation, said. “We believe they will be an important part of the evidence of the use of the nerve gas by the regime.”
He added: “The bodies were not buried properly, rather randomly, because at the time there was intense shelling. But people knew how important it was.”
The OPCW said it visited one of the sites of the alleged attack in Douma, but it is not known if the bodies were found. The inspectors, who are not mandated to apportion blame for the attack, were prevented from travelling to the site, controlled by Russian forces, for days, supposedly because of security concerns. Some journalists were granted access to the area.
The Assad regime and Russia, its close ally, have dismissed the accusations of a gas attack as “fabrication”.
Hours after the attack, Russia brokered a deal with rebels to relinquish control of Douma, their last bastion within the strategic stronghold of eastern Ghouta. Thousands of fighters, their families, White Helmet volunteers, medical workers and civilians have left the area during the past week.
Preliminary investigations by the US have concluded that both chlorine and a nerve agent were used. Video footage showed piles of bodies, some with foam on their mouths. Human Rights Watch said a modified gas canister found at the scene looked like those from previous regime attacks involving chlorine.
Chemical experts said the time delay could compromise the OPCW mission in Douma. “Chlorine evaporates very easily. If the temperatures are high it would not last for more than a day or so,” Hamish de Bretton-Gordon said. “Sarin will remain in biomedical samples like blood, hair and urine for a long time. If they can get to those dead bodies they should be able to prove that a nerve agent was used. It is key.”
More than 3,000 rebels and their families began withdrawing from Qalamoun, a rebel stronghold 25 miles northeast of Damascus, at the weekend.