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Hospitals struggle to treat injured after rocket attacks in eastern Damascus

A man sits in a hospital near two children who activists say were affected by nerve gas in the Ghouta region, in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus August 21, 2013. Syrian activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's forces of launching a nerve gas attack on rebel-held districts near Damascus on Wednesday that they said killed more than 200 people. There was no immediate comment from Syrian authorities, who have denied using chemical weapons during the country's two-year conflict, and have accused rebels of using them, which the rebels deny.

STRINGER/REUTERS

Syrians in the eastern Damascus suburbs of Ghouta and the western town of Moadimiyah reported panic, chaos and frantic efforts by under-supplied hospitals to treat the injured after a series of rocket attacks that, according to opposition forces, contained poison gas.

"At around 2:20 a.m., we heard an explosion – not a huge explosion – but an explosion, and soon after, we heard the reports of a chemical attack and an alert for medical personnel via the walkie-talkie," said Mohammad Salah al-Dein, 26, in Zamalka. "As I went out of the house, I was shocked by the huge numbers on the street and the panic everywhere."

He added: "What is left is panic and grief – it's a humanitarian catastrophe." Mr. al-Dein, one of several locals interviewed by phone, said Zamalka was nearly empty.

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Human Rights Watch said its researchers spoke to seven residents and two doctors in Ghouta who described seeing what one man said was a big cloud of smoke over the areas affected.

"A huge number of people in Ghouta are dead, doctors and witnesses are describing horrific details that look like a chemical weapons attack, and the government claims it didn't do it," said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at the New York-based group. "The only way to find out what really happened in Ghouta is to let UN inspectors in."

Doctors and locals helping them, reached by telephone, reported that medical supplies were running low.

"We just came back from a field tour in most hospitals and medical points surrounding the area and atropine and hydrocortisone supplies are running low and there is an acute lack of oxygen [tanks] right now," said Yasser, a man who worked with the wounded in the Ghouta area. "The situation is tragic."

Syrian state media said military operations were taking place in east Ghouta, but denied rebel accusations government forces used chemical weapons. Opposition activists insisted poison gas in the rockets had killed and injured hundreds.

"The smell is spreading across some neighbourhoods and towns near Ghouta," said Ismael al-Dirani, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Command Council in outer Damascus, an umbrella activist organization in the capital area.

Information coming out of Syria is very difficult to verify, in part due to government restrictions placed on foreign journalists, which explains the frequent divergence of casualty reports.

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