Beirut, Apr 12 (AFP) A top Syrian rebel official told AFP today that his faction only agreed to abandon its battered enclave outside Damascus because of an alleged toxic gas attack.

“Of course, the chemical attack is what pushed us to agree” to a withdrawal from Douma, said Yasser Dalwan, a high-ranking member of Jaish al-Islam.

It was the first public acknowledgement by Jaish al-Islam of a deal reached for Douma, their last rebel holdout in the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus.

The agreement was announced on Sunday morning by Syria’s government and its ally Russia, just hours after toxic gases were allegedly released on Douma.

First responders there said more than 40 people died Saturday after suffering symptoms consistent with chemical exposure, including wheezing, discoloured skin and foaming at the mouth.

World powers have threatened a strong response, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying today he had “proof” Syria’s government was behind the attack.

Syria and its ally Russia have both denied the accusations, and the global chemical watchdog said it would deploy a team to investigate.

Analysts have said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have used toxic gas to terrify Douma’s residents and push rebels to withdraw without a fight.

Jaish al-Islam had long insisted that it would refuse to agree to an evacuation deal for Douma.

But since the alleged attack, several thousand rebels and civilians have left Douma for opposition-held territory in the north.

They included Jaish al-Islam’s chief Issam Buwaydani, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.

“Not all the leadership has left yet. Departures are ongoing,” Dalwan told AFP. (AFP) SMJ

This is published unedited from the PTI feed.