Dubai: The US demanded an immediate international response to reports of a chemical attack outside Syria’s capital that rescue workers and activists said killed dozens.

The allegations emerged amid renewed government fire on Douma, the last rebel stronghold in the Eastern Ghouta suburb, after a truce in the area unraveled on Friday. A chemical weapons attack last April provoked a US missile strike, the first direct US hit on Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the conflict in Syria began in March 2011.

Syria’s official Sana news agency said the rapidly advancing army “doesn’t need to use any chemical weapons as the media channels that support the terrorists are fabricating." It cited an official it didn’t identify.

More than 40 people suffocated to death due to exposure to an unknown chemical agent, the White Helmets, an opposition-linked civil defense force that operates in rebel areas, said on Twitter. Images of lifeless children and women foaming from their mouths were circulated on social media. Fatalities could exceed 100 people, according to the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition umbrella group.

“Reports from a number of contacts and medical personnel on the ground indicate a potentially high number of casualties, including among families hiding in shelters," the US State Department said in a statement. “These reports, if confirmed, are horrifying and demand an immediate response by the international community."

The Tomahawk strike last year increased tensions with Russia, which has backed Assad in his battle to suppress an uprising that morphed into a regional proxy war. The State Department said in its statement that Russia “‘ultimately bears responsibility for these brutal attacks" and has “breached its commitments to the United Nations as a framework guarantor" to a 2013 agreement to strip Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles.

Russia, whose backing of Assad turned the course of the war in his favor, denied that Syrian government forces deployed chemical weapons in Douma, according to the Tass news service, which cited Major General Yuri Yevtushenko. Russia plans to send specialists to analyze the scene once militants are expelled from the area, and said the data will prove that reports of chemical use are false, Tass reported.

More than seven years of war in Syria have killed half a million people and dispersed millions more as refugees. The fighting has also drawn in Iran, Russia, the US and Turkey, and a postwar scenario could include a continuation of Syria’s de facto partition into spheres of foreign influence. Bloomberg

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