An attack on a rebel neighbourhood in the Syrian city of Homs may have included the use of chemical weapons, according to a disputed study by American diplomats.
A diplomatic cable leaked to an online magazine said five people had died in the attack on December 23, with the symptoms fitting those of poisoning by a nerve gas known as BZ, or by its codename, Agent 15.
Videos posted online showed the victims struggling for breath and choking on their own vomit – the cause of death in all the lethal cases. A number of other people were affected to varying degrees, and the magazine, 'Foreign Policy', which was briefed on the document, conducted its own interviews with the doctors who reported them.
"It was a chemical weapon, we are sure of that, because tear gas can't cause the death of five people," said one, Dr Nashwan Abu Abdo.
He said some of the patients suffered mental confusion, including hallucinations and behaviour changes, and some had recurrent symptoms. Although tear gas can cause choking, it cannot cause this range of effects.
"They all had miosis – pinpoint pupils," the doctor added. "They also had generalised muscle pain. There were also bad symptoms as far as their central nervous system. There were generalised seizures and some patients had partial seizures."
The study is unlikely to be held as conclusive by the White House, which tried to play down the report.
"The reporting we have seen from media sources regarding alleged chemical weapons incidents in Syria has not been consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons programme," said the National Security Council spokesman, Tommy Vietor.
US President Barack Obama and his senior officials have said that the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line", triggering international intervention.
The White House's doubt may relate to the fact that Syria's known chemical weapons stocks include substances such as sarin and VX, which are far more deadly than Agent 15.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, who is close to the Syrian regime, said last month its main chemical arsenal had been withdrawn to two secure locations.
Yesterday was another day of carnage in Syria as suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives blew themselves up near security targets in the north, killing at least 22 people.
The near simultaneous attacks in the city of Idlib brought the carnage to a second major urban centre in northern government-held areas in as many days.
Massive blasts devastated the main university in the commercial hub of Aleppo a day earlier, killing 87 people.
The Syrian army stepped up its operations against rebels in the north following the attacks, saying it killed and wounded dozens of "terrorist mercenaries" in Aleppo.
It pledged to continue "chasing the remnants of terrorists and cleansing the homeland of their dirt". (© Daily Telegraph, London)