UPDATE 1530 GMT: CBS News has cast more doubt over Assad regime propaganda and the account of The Independent’s Robert Fisk denying the April 7 chemical attacks.
The American outlet was able to reach the site of one of the attacks, speaking to a neighbor of the residence: “All of a sudden some gas spread around us. We couldn’t breathe, it smelled like chlorine.”
The neighbor, Nasr Hanan, is the brother of Hamzeh, seen in video lifeless and foaming at the mouth. He told CBS how his brother had tried to wash-off the chemicals, and showed the journalists the resting place of the missile which reportedly contained the agent.
Despite the “security issues” cited by Assad regime officials to block inspectors’ access to the sites of the April 7 chemical attacks on Douma near Syria’s capital Damascus (see Syria Daily), a British journalist has been escorted to the town to give a pro-regime account denying that the attacks ever occurred.
Robert Fisk of The Independent spoke with a local doctor — according to local pro-opposition activists and opposition sites, one of several who were taken by the Russians and threatened with arrest if they did present accounts denying any chemical attacks.
The doctor, identified as “Dr Rahaibani”, gave Fisk the story of people in basements affected not by chemicals, but by “huge dust clouds” from pro-Assad shelling:
People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”
Fisk’s article does not mention the reports that doctors were detained.
Nor did he apparently inquire of the doctor about an apparent flaw in the account: some of the victims of the attacks were not in basements, but above ground in a residential building.
While the British reporter visited the “wrecked offices” of the White Helmets civil defense organization, he does not mention that offices were wrecked by pro-Assad bombing just before the chemical attacks on April 7.
Having been escorted throughout his stay in Douma by regime officials and presented with his witnesses, Fisk ponders — but without apparently considering the obvious answer:
How could it be that Douma refugees who had reached camps in Turkey were already describing a gas attack which no-one in Douma today seemed to recall?
Journalist Richard Hall, a former editor at The Independent, critiques Fisk’s journalism:
Robert Fisk is allowed access to Douma before OCPW inspectors are allowed in. Doesn't speak to any witnesses of the attack, only a doctor who didn't see it, but says everyone "knows what happened." https://t.co/LXWmas48gL
— Richard Hall (@_RichardHall) April 17, 2018
Fisk seems perplexed why victims of the attack did not hang around in Douma when the government took over the area. And doesn’t seriously deal with the fact that those who stayed behind might not be able to speak freely.
Fisk is among a handful of journalists given regular access by Syrian government. He and others are shepherded in on minded trips when it is useful for the government. Journalists who do make it in and write something that counters the government narrative are not allowed back.
Fisk notes in his piece that he was granted access to the site before chemical weapons inspectors. As were a number of other journalists who — let’s be generous here — toe the government line. That feels like an attempt to muddy the waters ahead of an independent investigation.
A Swedish reporter was also able to get an interview from a survivor which challenges the Assad regime’s narrative:
We were sitting in the basement when it happened. The [missile] hit the house at 7 pm. We ran out while the women and children ran inside. They didn’t know the house had been struck from above and was totally filled with gas.
Those who ran inside died immediately. I ran out completely dizzy….Everybody died. My wife, my brothers, my mother. Everybody died.
Women and children sat in here, and boys & men sat there. Suddenly there was a sound as if the valve of a gas tube was opened.
It’s very difficult to explain. I can’t explain. I don’t know what I should say. The situation makes me cry. Children & toddlers, around 25 children.