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Obama eyes options for Syria

Symptoms point to 'neurotoxic agent'

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WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama met with his national security team Saturday to discuss potential military options in Syria, as an international relief group said Syrian hospitals reportedly treated 3,600 patients displaying symptoms of chemical weapons exposure after an attack that killed scores of civilians.

Obama convened the Saturday summit at the White House amid pressure for the administration to respond to the attack in Syria, which, if confirmed, would be Syrian President Bashar Assad's most flagrant violation yet of Obama's "red line" warning against the use of chemical warfare.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters Saturday that Obama had asked the Defense Department for "options" in a situation that Obama described Friday as a "big event of grave concern." Obama also sought backing from a key U.S. ally, speaking Saturday with British Prime Minister David Cameron and agreeing to consult on "possible responses by the international community to the use of chemical weapons." Cameron issued a stern warning, too, on the lethal consequences.

A White House official said Saturday that Obama had directed U.S. intelligence agencies to pull together facts and evidence to determine what happened and "once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond."

The official said the U.S. has a "range of options available" and Obama would "act very deliberately so that we're making decisions consistent with our national interest as well as our assessment of what can advance our objectives in Syria."

The Syrian regime, which has denied the use of chemical weapons and sought to put the blame on the opposition, reportedly will allow UN inspectors to visit the site of last week's attack.

Press TV, Iran's state-run satellite news channel, quoted Iran's foreign minister as saying he had spoken with his Syrian counterpart, who told him the government would co-operate with a UN team in the country. Syria's information minister warned a U.S. strike would backfire, telling Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV the "repercussion would be a ball of fire that would burn not only Syria but the whole Middle East," the Associated Press reported.

Doctors Without Borders said Saturday that three hospitals in Syria it supports are reporting they received approximately 3,600 patients displaying symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals the day of the attack last week in eastern Damascus. Of those patients, 355 reportedly died.

Doctors Without Borders has not been able to access the facilities due to "significant security risks," the international medical group said, adding it has a "strong and reliable collaboration" with medical networks and hospitals in the area.

Medical staff working in the Syrian facilities provided detailed information to the group's doctors regarding "large numbers of patients arriving with symptoms including convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress," said Dr. Bart Janssens, Doctors Without Borders' director of operations.

Patients were treated using atropine, a drug used to treat neurotoxic symptoms, which the aid group said it's now trying to replenish.

Janssens said his group "can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack." But he added, "the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events -- characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers -- strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent."

-- MCT Information Services

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2013 A3

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