Regime forces strike eastern Ghouta's Douma district in a midnight attack allegedly using a chemical agent, rescuers and medics say, sparking condemnation and retaliation vows.
Syrian opposition activists and rescuers said on Sunday that a poison gas attack on a opposition-held town near the capital killed at least 42 civilians, allegations denied by the Syrian regime and its ally Russia.
The suspected chemical attack in the town of Douma - controlled by opposition fighters -occurred late Saturday amid a resumed offensive by Syrian regime forces after the collapse of a truce with the Jaish al Islam opposition group.
The reports could not be independently verified.
The Syrian regime strongly denied the allegations. It said the claims were "fabrications" by the Jaish al Islam armed opposition group, calling it a "failed attempt" to impede regime advances.
TRT World's Abubakr al Shamahi has more on the story.
Victims found with foam on their mouths
First responders said they found families suffocated in their homes and shelters, with foam on their mouths.
The opposition-linked Syrian Civil Defense were able to document 42 fatalities but were impeded from searching further by strong odors that gave their rescuers difficulties breathing, said Siraj Mahmoud of the group, which is known as the White Helmets.
TRT World spoke with the spokesman for the White Helmets, Firas Abdullah, about the situation on the ground.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday called on the West to pay attention to children, women and civilians being "martyred" in eastern Ghouta.
"When will you [the Western countries] turn around and look at the children, women and humans slaughtered and martyred in eastern Ghouta so we can say 'they act fair'?" Erdogan said at the governing Justice and Development (AK) Party's ordinary provincial congress in southeastern Siirt province.
Turkey's Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin condemned the chemical attack, saying "the regime should be held accountable for repeated use of gas attacks in the war-torn country."
Turkish officials revised the death toll in the alleged chemical attack to at least 70.
The Britain-based war monitor Syrian Observatory For Human Rights (SOHR) said the total death toll reached to 82 in the last 48 hours.
Douma has been devastated by close to five years of siege at the hands of regime forces. It was once one of the hubs of the 2011 uprising against regime leader Bashar al Assad.
In recent weeks, regime forces have recaptured villages and towns in the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital.
Douma is the only town left holding out.
A 'big price to pay'
US President Donald Trump on Sunday said Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad will have a "big price to pay" for launching a deadly chemical weapons attack on civilians, and blamed Iran and Russian President Vladimir Putin for backing "animal Assad."
"Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world," Trump wrote on Twitter.
"President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price to pay," he wrote.
Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2018
'Devices of extermination'
Pope Francis on Sunday joined many countries in condemning the suspected chemical attack.
"Nothing, nothing can justify the use of such devices of extermination against defenceless people and populations," Pope said.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement that he was "deeply concerned" about renewed violence in the city of Douma, citing reports that sustained air strikes and shelling had killed civilians, destroyed infrastructure and damaged health facilities.
"The secretary-general is particularly alarmed by allegations that chemical weapons have been used against civilian populations in Douma," the statement said.
But Assad's staunch ally Russia rejected claims the Syrian regime troops used chemical weapons.
"We firmly deny this information," said Major General Yuri Yevtushenko, head of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Warring Sides in Syria.
More families were found suffocated in their houses and shelters in #Douma. The number of victıms is increasing dramatically, and the ambulance teams and the @SyriaCivilDefe volunteers continue their search and rescue operations.#AssadHitsDoumawithChemicals pic.twitter.com/yEcQ3xPir7— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) April 8, 2018
UNSC meeting expected
The United Nations Security Council is likely to meet on Monday afternoon over the attack at the request of the United States and several other members, diplomats said on Sunday.
“UK, France, US, Poland, Netherlands, Sweden, Kuwait, Peru and Cote d’Ivoire have called an emergency meeting of UNSC to discuss reports of chemical weapons attack in Syria. Meeting expected on Monday," the British mission to the United Nations tweeted.
UK, France, US, Poland, Netherlands, Sweden, Kuwait, Peru and Cote d’Ivore have called an emergency meeting of #UNSC to discuss reports of chemical weapons attack in #Syria. Meeting expected on Monday.— UK at the UN 🇬🇧 (@UKUN_NewYork) April 8, 2018
Meanwhile, Russia also called for a Monday meeting of the UNSC concerning "international threats to peace and security," diplomats said on Sunday.
The precise topic of what the Russians wished to discuss was not immediately clear.
Not the first accusation
The latest attack in Douma comes almost exactly a year after a chemical attack in the northern Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun killed dozens of people.
That attack prompted Trump to order a missile attack on a Syrian air base. The Syrian regime and its ally, Russia, denied any involvement in the alleged gas attack.
Douma is in the suburbs of Damascus known as eastern Ghouta.
A chemical attack in eastern Ghouta in 2013 that was widely blamed on regime forces killed hundreds of people, prompting the US to threaten military action before later backing down.
The Syrian regime denies ever using chemical weapons during the seven-year civil war, and says it eliminated its chemical arsenal under a 2013 agreement brokered by the US and Russia after the attack in eastern Ghouta.
The offensive in eastern Ghouta has been one of the deadliest of the seven-year-long war, killing more than 1,600 civilians, according to the SOHR.
Backed by Russia, Assad's forces have scored a series of victories over rebel forces in recent years, often through campaigns of siege, aerial bombardment and ground offensives that have drawn widespread international condemnation.
Syria's seven-year bloodletting has left around 450,000 killed. More than 11 million people — about half the country's prewar population — have been displaced from their homes, including over 5 million who are living as refugees outside Syria, according to the United Nations.
The UN has estimated the material cost of the war damage at close to $250 billion.