WASHINGTON -- The United States says it is closely monitoring "very disturbing" reports of the possible “horrifying” new use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces and said Russia would be held responsible if the attacks are confirmed.
"The [Syrian] regime's history of using chemical weapons against its own people in not in dispute," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement said on April 7.
"Russia, with its unwavering support for the regime, ultimately bears responsibility for the brutal targeting of countless Syrians with chemical weapons," she said. “By shielding its ally Syria, Russia has breached its commitments to the United Nations as a framework guarantor.”
She added that the "United States calls on Russia to end this unmitigated support immediately and work with the international community to prevent further, barbaric chemical weapons attacks."
The comments come after a Syrian rebel group and international aid groups on April 7 accused government forces of dropping a bomb with poisonous chemicals on civilians in eastern Ghouta, the besieged Damascus suburb.
Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a medical relief group, also alleged that a chlorine bomb hit the hospital in Douma, killing six people, and that a second attack using "mixed agents," including nerve gas, had hit into another building.
The U.S.-based vice president of SAMS, Basel Termanini, told the Reuters news agency that the death toll in the chemical attacks came to at least 35 people.
"We are contacting the UN and the U.S. government and the European governments," he said by phone.
The Syria Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, also claimed evidence of a chemical attack.
Reuters said it could not independently verify the reports.
State media denied Syrian forces had launched a chemical attack and said rebels in Douma were in a state of collapse and spreading false news.
The Syrian Army and allies intensified shelling and air raids on Douma, a day after air strikes killed at least 40 people in the last rebel holdout near Damascus.
State news agency SANA said the attacks were retaliation for the shelling of nearby government-held areas by rebels from the Jaish al-Islam rebel group, which controls Douma.
The remnants of antigovernment rebels are holding out in their last pockets of territory in eastern Ghouta, as Russian and Syrian military officials report that Syrian government forces and their allies have taken nearly all of the formerly rebel-held region.
Thousands of people have left Douma in recent days under a Russian-mediated deal, but the evacuations were suspended on April 5 after negotiations apparently broke down.
The military offensive by Syrian government forces and their allies, which involved weeks of intense bombardment, has left more than 1,600 civilians dead and thousands more wounded in eastern Ghouta since February 18, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Britain-based monitor group.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on March 11 warned Syria that it would be "very unwise" for government forces to use weaponized gas, and slammed Russian support for Damascus.
Mattis made the remarks amid reports that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces had recently used chlorine gas in Ghouta.
In April 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a missile strike against a Syrian air base after Washington said the facility was used to launch a sarin nerve gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun, killing dozens of civilians.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, dpa, and Al-Jazeera