BEIRUT/ISTANBUL: Bodies are still being discovered after an alleged chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus that killed hundreds of people and the death toll will rise, a Syrian opposition spokesman said Thursday.
The opposition accused government forces of gassing hundreds of people on Wednesday by firing rockets that released deadly fumes over rebel-held Damascus suburbs, killing men, women and children as they slept.
"We expect the number (of dead) to grow because we just discovered a neighborhood in Zamalka where there are houses full of dead people," Syrian National Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh told Reuters in Istanbul, where the opposition has held regular meetings throughout the conflict.
Activist Alexia Jade, speaking via Skype from Damascus, told The Daily Star that doctors were overwhelmed trying to treat the injured.
Estimates for the death toll have ranged from 500 to well over double that number, which would make it the world's most lethal chemical weapons attack since the 1980s. Syrian authorities have denied government forces used chemical weapons.
Fahad Almasri, spokesman for the rebel Free Syria Army in Paris, said its branch in Damascus had documented 1,729 deaths following Wednesday's attack. He added that 6,000 people were also suffering from breathing problems.
The opposition has demanded that U.N. chemical weapons inspectors immediately investigate the besieged rebel-held area outside the capital. France said the world should respond with force if the chemical allegations prove true.
"There is a time limit for when the inspectors can prove with high probability that chemical weapons were used. We are saying let the inspectors go in either today, or tomorrow at the most," Saleh said.
The alleged attack prompted an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council in New York. It did not explicitly demand a U.N. investigation, although it said "clarity" was needed and welcomed U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's calls for a prompt investigation by the inspection team in Syria.
Saleh said that international inaction after alleged chemical weapons attacks by Syrian government forces earlier in the conflict had emboldened President Bashar Assad.
"Politics is knocking on closed doors and we understand that the U.N. is one of those closed doors for us," he said. "We will continue pursuing a political solution but at the same time that does not stop us from pursuing other alternatives."
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged a reaction "with force" if the massacre was confirmed.
"If it is proven, France's position is that there must be a reaction, a reaction that could take the form of a reaction with force," Fabius told BFM-TV.
In a statement later on Thursday, Hollande's office said that in a telephone conversation with Ban, the president had noted "the shock caused in France by the massacres carried out in Syria on the night of August 20-21 and the likely use of chemical weapons."
Hollande also hailed Ban's commitment "to proceed with a rapid and impartial investigation" into the claims of a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle demanded that Syria grant full access to United Nations chemicals weapons experts to investigate the allegations.
"We are very worried about the reports that poison gas has been used near Damascus. These reports are very serious and if they are confirmed would be outrageous," Westerwelle told a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart.
"We call for this clarification to be made possible promptly and for the United Nations chemical weapons experts who are now in the country be given access immediately to check these accusations," he said.
Turkey said that a red line had been crossed.
"Several red lines have been crossed - if sanctions are not imposed immediately, then we will lose our power to deter," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, speaking at the news conference.
Davutoglu, speaking through an interpreter, said the allegations "must be cleared up in the most objective way." He said he'd spoken to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and told him that "the U.N. must not behave hesitantly anymore; sanctions must now be imposed."
Britain said its first priority was to verify the facts surrounding the reported attack, but said it could not rule out any option to end the bloodshed there.
""We believe a political solution is the best way to end the bloodshed," a spokesman from the British Foreign Office told Reuters. "However, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have said many times we cannot rule out any option ... that might save innocent lives in Syria."
The Syrian government has denied the accusations that it carried out a chemical attack Wednesday.
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said the allegations of chemical attacks, just days after the arrival of a U.N. investigation team, were "illogical and fabricated."
Assad's Shiite backer Iran said the Syrian government could not have been behind the possible chemical weapon attack as Assad had the upper hand in the fighting.
Russia, which has rejected the Syrian opposition claims of a chemical weapons attack as a "premeditated provocation", said that despite the site falling in a zone controlled by rebels, the U.N. team would need the approval of Damascus to visit there.
"We proceed from the premise that the mission must agree on this visit with the Syrian side, as the receiving party," the Russian foreign ministry's official spokesman said in Moscow.
Israel said Thursday it believed Syrian forces had used chemical weapons, and it accused the world of turning a blind eye to such attacks.
"The world condemns, the world investigates, the world pays lip service," Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Israel Radio.
"Nothing tangible or significant has been done in the past two years to halt (President Bashar al-) Assad's incessant massacre of his citizens," he said.
Human rights groups backed calls for access for the U.N. inspectors to the sites of the alleged attacks.
Should the allegations be true, "the attacks would amount to war crimes," said Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, who urged the U.N. inspectors to visit the site.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the descriptions its staff heard from witnesses are "consistent with the use of chemical nerve agents."
"A huge number of people in Ghouta (towns east of Damascus) are dead, doctors and witnesses are describing horrific details that look like a chemical weapons attack and the government claims it didn't do it," said Joe Stork, HRW's acting Middle East director.
"The only way to find out what really happened in Ghouta is to let U.N. inspectors in," Stork added.
In Ghouta on Thursday, rockets and heavy mortar rounds hit the rebel-held areas of Jobar and Zamalka, which are on the eastern outskirts of the capital, activists said.
Rockets also hit the nearby district of Qaboun to the north, where rebel fighters have repelled attempts by loyalist forces to overrun the area, and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp area to the south, the activists added.