BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian government said it would start negotiations on Sunday with the rebel group Jaish al-Islam, hours after dozens of people were reportedly killed in a suspected chemical attack on the enclave the group controls outside Damascus.
There was no immediate comment from Jaish al-Islam, which said the government carried out the chemical attack in the town of Douma. At least 49 people were killed, according to a medical relief organisation and Douma’s civil defence rescue service.
Damascus has denied mounting any such attack and said the rebels in Douma, who are massively outgunned and completely encircled, were collapsing and spreading false news.
“Jaish al-Islam terrorists have requested negotiations with the Syrian state, which will start the talks within two hours from now (local time),” state TV cited an official source as saying on Sunday morning.
The U.S. State Department said reports of mass casualties from the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma were “horrifying” and would, if confirmed, “demand an immediate response by the international community”.
In a joint statement, the Syrian American Medical Society, the relief organisation, and Douma’s civil defence service said medical centres had received more than 500 cases of people suffering breathing difficulties in Douma on Saturday evening, frothing from the mouth and smelling of chlorine.
One of the victims was dead on arrival, and six died later, it said. Civil defence volunteers reported more than 42 cases of people dead at their homes showing the same symptoms, it said.
Reuters could not verify the reports. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 people had died of suffocation but could not say if chemical weapons had been used.
President Bashar al-Assad has won back control of nearly all of eastern Ghouta in a Russian-backed military campaign that began in February, leaving just Douma in rebel hands. After a lull of a few days, government forces began bombarding Douma again on Friday.
The offensive in Ghouta has been one of the deadliest of the seven-year-long war, killing more than 1,600 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Reporting by Dahlia Nehme; editing by Tom Perry, Larry King