Middle East

Gas attack legacy: deformed babies

(Chemical Weapons Violations Center)

BEIRUT: A newborn baby born to a mother exposed to chemical weapons in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus in August died Tuesday, a doctor working on the case told The Daily Star.

The news follows claims by opposition activists that other expectant mothers have given birth to babies with birth defects, after they were exposed to chemical weapons allegedly used by the Syrian regime.

Photographic evidence of the deformities seen by The Daily Star shows a baby born with only one lower limb and no genital organs.

“Of course the newborn died half an hour after birth,” Dr. Abu Ibrahim Bakr, the chief gynecologist at the Zahraa Gynecological Center in eastern Ghouta, where the baby was born, told The Daily Star.

The deformities were different than those he sees in babies whose mothers have taken certain pharmaceuticals throughout their pregnancies, he added.

“We have approximately 350 births every month in central Ghouta, and today was the first malformed newborn,” he said.

The mother and her family were in the eastern Ghouta when a large scale chemical weapons attack was launched on Aug. 21.

“The exposure to chemical weapons can absolutely cause the fetus’ deformations, especially if the pregnancy is in its first three months,” Bakr said. The mother was in her first trimester during the Aug. 21 attack.

Another baby, Fatima Abdel-Ghaffar, was recently born with severe head and face deformities, according to the pro-opposition Chemical Weapons Documentation Center), based in Brussels.

Her mother had been living in Douma, also in eastern Ghouta, on Aug. 21.

The regime and its allies have blamed the attack, which killed hundreds of people, on the government, while the regime has blamed it on the rebels.

The U.N. confirmed that sarin gas was used but it was not mandated, in its investigation, to ascribe responsibility to any side.

Another baby girl, Joud, was recently born without a left foot, and with a missing fingertip. Her mother was two months pregnant when rebels accused the government of launching a chemical weapons attack last July in the city of Homs, where she was living at the time. Joud was born at the Bab al-Hawa Hospital in Idlib, on the border with Turkey.

A doctor who was monitoring the latter case told the CWDC that “the child’s mother was victim of a chemical attack targeting the city of Homs while she was in the second month of her pregnancy.”

“The pregnancy advanced until the baby girl was born with deformities consisting in a congenital mutilation in her left lower limb, conjoined fingers on her right hand, in addition to the absence of ligaments in the same hand,” he said.

“This was the result of the mother’s loss of amniotic fluid following her inhalation of toxic gas,” the doctor added.

While stressing that he was not a doctor, chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon pointed to similar birth defects witnessed after the 1988 Halabja massacre, when the Iraqi government launched a chemical attack against the local Kurdish population.

De Bretton-Gordon, CEO of SecureBio, a U.K.-based Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear consultancy firm and former commander of the British military’s CBRN forces, said of the images of Joud: “Yes I think there is something in this and we saw similar from Halabja victims. I’m obviously not a doctor but chemical weapons, including chlorine, are known to be carcinogenic and mutanogenic.”

The Center for Disease Control, the U.S. national public health institute, states that in the use of organophosphates such as sarin, “the possibility that birth defects could occur has neither been confirmed nor ruled out.” Chlorine is not included in this nerve agent category, as it is a blister agent.

On a visit to Washington Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius accused the regime of using chemical weapons, including chlorine, in 14 attacks since late 2013.

“We have credible witnesses for the use, at least 14 uses ... of chemical agents since October 2013,” Fabius told a news conference.

Also, Human Rights Watch issued a report claiming that the group had strong evidence that the Syrian army dropped chlorine gas bombs on three rebel-held towns last month, something the opposition and others have already alleged.

The government has denied the previous allegations and has accused rebels of using chlorine gas in the past.

“Witnesses told HRW they saw a helicopter dropping a barrel bomb or heard a helicopter immediately prior to an explosion, followed immediately by a peculiar odor. The witnesses consistently described the clinical signs and symptoms of exposure to a choking agent [also known as a lung or pulmonary agent] by victims,” the report says.

The regime alone is in possession of helicopters; the opposition has no air power. At least 11 people died in the three attacks, in Kafr Zeita, in Hama province, on April 11 and 18; in Al-Temanaa in Idlib governorate on April 13 and 18 and in Telmanes, southeast of Idlib city, on April 21.

A further 500 others were treated for “symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine,” according to doctors on the ground, interviewed by HRW.

Chlorine, despite being a household item, is included in the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria became a party to in October 2013, in an attempt to appease the U.S. and its allies’ talk of military intervention after the Ghouta attack had appeared to cross U.S. President Barack Obama’s “red line.”

The U.S. and Russia brokered a deal by which all chemical weapons were to leave Syria by June 30, and 92 percent have so far been handed over to a joint task force of the U.N. and the OPCW. However, chlorine was not included in Syria’s inventory list of chemical weapons.

“Syria’s apparent use of chlorine gas as a weapon – not to mention targeting of civilians – is a plain violation of international law,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW. “This is one more reason for the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.”

Although chlorine canisters are widely available and easy to use, Houry said the government was the most likely perpetrator.

“This happened on multiple days, in different locations, and there is a consistency in what happened,” Houry said. “That’s what gave us that level of confidence to say there is strong evidence pointing in this direction.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2014, on page 8.




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