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Syria opposition claims hundreds dead in 'gas' attacks

7:01 AM, Aug 22, 2013   |    comments
Photo by the Associated Press
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Government forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have carried out a "poisonous gas" attack near the capital Damascus that has left hundreds dead, Syrian opposition groups claimed Wednesday.

Anti-government activists are saying that regime forces fired "rockets with poisonous gas heads" in the attack. The number of reported deaths has ranged from 100 to close to 800. The claims and reports could not be independently confirmed.

The Syrian government denied the claims of a chemical weapons attack Wednesday.

"All what has been said is ridiculous and naive, unscientific, illogical and subjective," said Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi, speaking to Syrian state television.

The state-run SANA news agency said there was no truth to the allegations "whatsoever" that chemical weapons were used.

"They are an attempt to divert the United Nations commission on chemical weapons from carrying out its mission," the news agency said.

U.N. chemical weapons inspectors are in Syria this week to investigate claims that chemical weapons have been used there by both sides in a bloody and protracted civil war.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shelling was intense and hit the eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma. Rami Abdul-Rahman from the SOHR says he has documented at least 100 deaths from Wednesday's attack. He says it's not clear whether the victims died from shelling or toxic gas attacks.

The Local Coordination Committees said hundreds of people, perhaps as many as 775, were killed or injured in the shelling. Such different figures are common in the immediate aftermath of attacks in Syria.

Videos and images that appeared to show victims with symptoms consistent with a chemical attack surfaced online Wednesday, although their veracity could not be immediately confirmed.

The Syrian government has long denied claims by the opposition on chemical weapons use, saying rebels fighting to overthrow Assad's government have used such weapons.

Wednesday's claim of the chemical attack, if confirmed, would be the most serious since the March 19 incident in Khan al-Assal when at least 30 people were killed. Assad's regime and the rebels have blamed each other for that attack.

Unrest in Syria began in March 2011 and later exploded into a civil war. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

France's president demanded the United Nations be granted access to the site of the alleged attack, while Britain's foreign secretary William Hague said if the claims are verified it would mark "a shocking escalation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria."

He called on the Syrian government to allow immediate access to the area for the U.N. team currently in Syria.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States is "deeply concerned" by the reports of civilian deaths and is formally requesting that the U.N. urgently investigate the allegations.

"If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the U.N. team's immediate and unfettered access to this site," Earnest said.

France has also asked the U.N. delegation to visit the site of the alleged attacks.

That request would seem to fulfill the U.N. requirement that a member state make a formal request before such action can occur. Syria would also need to agree to the request. It was not immediately clear whether that would happen.

Syria's ambassador to Russia dismissed the allegations, Russia's Interfax news agency reported.


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