A picture taken on April 4, 2017 shows destruction at a hospital room in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack
A picture taken on April 4, 2017 shows destruction at a hospital room in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack © Omar haj kadour - AFP
A picture taken on April 4, 2017 shows destruction at a hospital room in Khan Sheikhun, a rebel-held town in the northwestern Syrian Idlib province, following a suspected toxic gas attack
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Alex PIGMAN, AFP
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Tragedy of suspected chemical attack seeps into Syria conference

For Diaeddin Al Zamel, the call to save Syria at a EU-UN conference in Brussels was not supposed to be a punch to the gut.

The gathering was meant to be an all-too-typical plea for aid from rich donors -- but then came the text message from the world's bloodiest battleground.

A source on the ground said the town of Khan Sheikhun in Idlib Province had been hit by a chemical gas airstrike that left many dead and dozens others vomiting, fainting and foaming at the mouth.

Zamel, of the Syrian UOSSM hospital network, said he had no choice but to share the tragedy being played out on his phone screen.

Facing delegates assembled in a packed conference room, Zamel said warplanes had just unleashed the suspected toxic gas attack on the town in northwestern Syria.

He told the audience of a terrible scene: haunting images of the dead, mainly children, eyes coal-black and lifeless but open.

"They are still counting the dead," Zamel told AFP in Arabic via an interpreter.

"Most killed were children, which is normal because their bodies do not tolerate the chemicals," he said.

Hours later, air strikes hit a hospital in the town where doctors were treating victims of the attack.

"The type of gas or chemical has not been confirmed but the symptoms seem like sarin," Zamel said.

- 'There are no red lines' -

"The hospitals on the ground can't take everyone and are not prepared to deal with these cases. The biggest problem is the lack of special suits and masks," he added.

With zero warning, the worst that six bloody years of conflict in Syria had to offer had muscled its way into the conference in Brussels.

EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini acknowledged in an interview Tuesday that it could be seen as "surreal" to be talking about the post-conflict prospects for Syria with attacks still going on.

"I know these people, we all know each other," said Manal Fahham, a neurologist who works with Al Seeraj, a Syrian medical NGO.

"This is supposed to be a red line in the conflict but you know that there are no red lines in this conflict," she said, referring to the suspected gas attack.

Fahham studied medicine in Damascus before working for 20 years in Saudi Arabia. In early 2011 she moved with her husband to Syria and set up a network of clandestine doctors as the war raged.

"You know what people tell me on the ground? They say they want a quick death, not a slow death," she said.

"Lately the attacks have been using chlorine gas which is almost worse. Chlorine doesn't kill you, it just makes you suffer, causing psychological problems," she said.

Zamel said the most pressing problem was the lack of training and supplies after years of conflict that have seen doctors experienced doctors killed or choosing exile.

"These attacks require a lot of medication. There were only 50 injections of a Atropine antidote available at the hospital" in Idlib, he said.

"There is a lack of experience to deal with chemical-type attacks. There is lack of oxygen, medication and most important proper chemical suits, gloves and masks," he said.

"We need properly trained medical personnel to deal with these attacks. We need support," he said.

- 'The worst' -

The gathered officials from embassies, aid agencies and NGOs could only listen, with even the most war-weathered veterans dumbstruck by the latest news.

"This sixth year of the conflict has been by far the worst in the conflict. Today is the worst type of violation," said Justin Byworth of World Vision, a Christian NGO with many missions in Syria.

"I've worked in humanitarian work for thirty years -- Africa, Asia the Middle East -- and I've never had a experience like the Syrian conflict," he said.

"Today, sitting in that conference room with the head of all these major institutions: UN, EU... for everyone in the room, who have seen the horrific situation in Syria, it really hit home," he said.

"The problem is, Are the right people in the room who need to hear that message?"

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