The Syrian government has been unleashing chemical weapons against its own people, according to two French journalists who spent two months undercover in the country.
Embedded with rebel forces on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, Jean-Philippe Remy and Laurent van der Stockt, from 'Le Monde', witnessed a series of attacks.
"No odour, no smoke, not even a whistle to indicate the release of a toxic gas," wrote Mr Remy, from the front line in the suburb of Jobar.
"And then the symptoms appear. The men cough violently. Their eyes burn, their pupils shrink, their vision blurs. Soon they experience difficulty breathing, sometimes in the extreme; they begin to vomit or lose consciousness. The fighters worst affected need to be evacuated before they suffocate."
Mr van der Stockt, a photographer, was beside the rebel fighters when they were targeted by the gas, leaving him suffering from blurred vision and respiratory difficulties for four days.
The French journalists were told that the attacks in the capital began on April 11, near Abbasid Square – one of the key gateways to Damascus.
Stronger chemicals were used close to a meat market, where government tanks were stationed.
Abu Atal, one of the fighters in Jobar, said that the rebels were initially confused by a chemical attack on April 13 and did not desert their positions but remained still – wheezing for breath, "terrorised and trying to calm themselves through prayer".
General Abu Mohammad Al-Kurdi, the commander of the Free Syrian Army's first division, said his men saw government soldiers leave their positions just before other men "wearing chemical-protection suits" surged forward and set "little bombs, like mines" on the ground that began giving off a chemical product.
Other attacks outside of Damascus were reported to have taken place on March 14, in the town of Otaiba.
The French journalists spoke to doctors who had treated the fighters. They claimed that the attacks were continuing across the country – with the most recent on May 23 in Adra, north-east of Damascus.
"The aim of the attacks seemed to be essentially tactical at this stage – an attempt to destabilise rebel units in areas where government soldiers have been unable to dislodge them, and at the same time a test," wrote Mr Remy.
"If Syrian army forces could dare to use chemical weapons in their own capital without setting off a serious international reaction, would that not be an invitation to pursue the experiment a bit further?"
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said that the accounts needed to be verified but they presented "increasingly strong evidence" of chemical attack by regime forces.
Separately, yesterday, a well-known Syrian journalist working for a pro-government television channel near the Lebanese-Syrian border was killed by sniper fire.
Yara Abbas, a reporter for the al-Ikhbariya news channel, was killed near Debaa airport in Homs province. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad there have been trying to recapture the base from the rebels. Syria TV said Ms Abbas, who was in her mid-twenties, was targeted by "terrorists", the term commonly used by Assad supporters to describe the rebels. (© Daily Telegraph, London)