BEIRUT/AMMAN: Syria’s opposition accused government forces of gassing hundreds of people Wednesday by firing rockets that released deadly fumes over rebel-held Damascus suburbs, killing men, women and children as they slept.
With the dead estimated between 500 and 1,300, what would be the world’s most lethal chemical weapons attack since the 1980s prompted an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council in New York.
As The Daily Star went to press the Security Council was still meeting behind closed doors.
Immediate international action is likely to be limited, with the divisions among major powers that have crippled efforts to quell two and a half years of civil war still much in evidence.
Russia backed up denials from the administration of President Bashar Assad by saying it looked like a rebel “provocation” to discredit him.
Britain voiced the opposite view: “I hope this will wake up some who have supported the Assad regime to realize its murderous and barbaric nature,” Foreign Secretary William Hague said on a visit to Paris.
France, Britain, the United States and others called for an immediate on-site investigation by U.N. chemical weapons inspectors who arrived in the Syrian capital only this week.
Moscow, urging an “objective” inquiry, said the very presence of that team suggested government forces were not to blame.
The White House called on the United Nations to urgently investigate the allegations, saying it had no independent verification of the incident and was seeking additional information. It also demanded that the Syrian government allow a U.N. team already in the country “immediate and unfettered access” to the location of the alleged attack.
The United States announced on June 13 that it would send military aid to Syrian rebels, saying Assad’s government had crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons in several small-scale attacks.
But even after that announcement, Obama has stuck to a cautious approach by authorizing only limited weapons shipments, showing little appetite for deeper involvement in Syria’s civil war.
However, with the latest allegations putting the White House on the defensive, confirmation of a large-scale gas attack could add to pressure at home and abroad for a tougher line against Assad, who has defied Western calls to step aside.
“The United States is deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons, near Damascus earlier today,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
“We are formally requesting that the United Nations urgently investigate this new allegation. The U.N. investigative team, which is currently in Syria, is prepared to do so, and that is consistent with its purpose and mandate,” he said.
Earnest said that “if the Syrian government has nothing to hide,” it would facilitate the work of the U.N. inspectors. “They must have immediate access to witnesses and affected individuals, and have the ability to examine and collect physical evidence without any interference or manipulation from the Syrian government,” he said.
Previous, smaller and disputed cases of chemical deployment have not brought the all-out military intervention rebel leaders have sought to break a stalemate.
U.S. Senator John McCain, a Republican critic of Obama’s Syria policy, said on Twitter that failure to penalize previous gas attacks had emboldened Assad: “No consequence for Assad using chemical weapons & crossing red line,” he wrote. “We shouldn’t be surprised he’s using them again.”
The Security Council, where Russia has vetoed previous Western efforts to impose U.N. penalties on Assad, began a closed-door meeting but was not expected to take decisive action, with the big powers still at loggerheads.Images, including some by freelance photographers supplied to Reuters, showed scores of bodies – some of them small children – laid on the floor of a clinic with no visible signs of injury. Some showed people with foam around their mouths.
The U.S. and others said it had no independent confirmation that chemical weapons had been used. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said the head of the inspection team in Damascus was already discussing the latest claims with the government.
Opposition activists cited death tolls ranging from about 500 to, by one account, some 1,300 after shells and rockets fell around 3 a.m. local time Wednesday. In 1988, 3,000 to 5,000 Iraqi Kurds were gassed by Saddam Hussein’s forces at Halabja.
Doctors who were interviewed described symptoms they believed pointed to sarin gas, one of the agents Western powers accuse Damascus of having in an undeclared chemical weapons stockpile.
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said the allegations were “illogical and fabricated.” Assad’s officials have said they would never use poison gas against Syrians. The United States and European allies believe Assad’s forces have used small amounts of sarin before, hence the current U.N. visit.
An opposition monitoring group, citing figures compiled from clinics in the Damascus suburbs, put the death toll at 494 – 90 percent killed by gas, the rest by bombs and conventional arms. The rebel Syrian National Coalition said that 650 people had been killed.
Activists said rockets with chemical agents hit the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar during a fierce pre-dawn bombardment by government forces. The Damascus Media Office said 150 bodies were counted in Hammouriya, 100 in Kfar Bitna, 67 in Saqba, 61 in Douma, 76 in Mouadamiya and 40 in Arbin.
A nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, said: “Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims.”
Extensive amateur video and photographs appeared on the Internet showing victims choking, some foaming at the mouth.
A video purportedly shot in the Kfar Bitna neighborhood showed a room filled with more than 90 bodies, many of them children and a few women and elderly men. Most of the bodies appeared ashen or pale but showed no visible injuries.
Other footage showed doctors treating people in makeshift clinics. One video showed a dozen bodies lying on the floor of a clinic. A voiceover said they were members of a single family. In a corridor outside lay another five bodies.
Syria is one of just a handful of countries that are not parties to the international treaty that bans chemical weapons, and Western nations believe that it has caches of undeclared mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agents.