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Syria gas survivors talk of attack

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It's been three days since toxic gas engulfed the northern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun and it remains a place of ghostly desolation, its streets empty with tents packed with weeping survivors.

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More than 80 people were killed in Tuesday’s attack on the opposition-held town, a massacre that has been widely blamed on Syrian government forces. Residents and doctors say many of those who fled have yet to return, fearful of lingering fumes or another attack. The dead have been buried in trenches.

Fatima Alyousef, 25, is one of the few survivors in a house close to the epicentre of the attack and is haunted by images of her cousin and aunt, who died in her arms as she tried to save them.

She broke down as she recounted how she tried to help her aunt, who was gasping for air, to the roof of their two-story house to escape the fumes but was unable to lift her up the stairs.

She told the Associated Press her uncle was also unable to help so they both died in the house, along with her 17-year-old cousin who was unable to withstand the toxic fumes.

By the time the attack had ended, 25 members of her extended family died.

She is now staying with relatives far away from the contaminated area and still feels unwell from the fumes but hasn’t been able to get medical help as the clinic was also destroyed on the same day in a separate airstrike.

Another survivor of the attack is Alaa Alyousef who says his vision remains blurred and he’s unable to sleep.

He knows he is lucky to have survived, but says he is worried about the long-term impact of the attack.

“We don’t know what will happen to us. Is the impact over? Are the babies going to be OK?”

The 27-year-old says his cousin, Abdel Hameed, who lost his wife and 9-month-old twins, suffered a nervous breakdown overnight and is also experiencing vision problems.

“His condition is bad, bad,” he said.

Alyousef says he is haunted by memories of relatives killed in the attack – their jokes and laughter. His cousins died near the soccer field where they used to play, joke and stay up all night.

“Now, it has become a field for our bodies,” he said.

Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has insisted that the poison gas attack is a war crime and “cries out for a strong response”.

But his government won’t be drawn on whether Australia would consider joining potential US action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if asked by the Trump administration.

“As a parent, a grandparent, everyone weeps when you see this sort of inhumanity, this cruelty,” Turnbull told 3AW Radio.

“We have condemned this attack utterly. It cries out for a strong response.”

Turnbull said Australia had been in close touch with its US ally, and he has discussed the issue with Defence Minister Marise Payne and the defence force chief.

“I don’t want to speculate any further,” he said.

Australia has conducted some air strikes in Syria as part of its contribution to the fight against Islamic State extremists in the Middle East.

US Vice-President Mike Pence upped his criticism of the Assad regime in the wake of this week’s deadly gas attack in northern Syria, telling US media “all options are on the table”.

Asked if Australia would join any US action without UN backing, Defence Minister Marise Payne told ABC radio on Friday: “We’ll make decisions in regard to those sorts of issues as they are brought to us.”

Payne said the most important thing now is to condemn the attack.

“We have to be clear with Russia, we have to be clear with those who support the regime that this is totally unacceptable,” she said.

The minister said Australia would “of course” be part of the conversation about possible US action.

– AP/AAP

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