Middle East

130 killed in alleged chemical attack in Syria

130 killed in alleged chemical attack in Syria
A man and woman mourn over the dead bodies of Syrian men after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces. Photo: AP/Local Committee of Arbeen
Regime denies attack in Damascus suburbs; US, Britain, France urge immediate access for UN inspectors to verify claims of toxic gas use
Published: 7:53 AM, August 22, 2013
Updated: 8:00 AM, August 22, 2013
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BEIRUT — The images showed lifeless children — wrapped in simple white cloths, their pale faces unmarked by any wound — lined up shoulder to shoulder in a vivid demonstration of an attack yesterday in which activists say the Syrian regime killed at least 130 people with toxic gas.

The Syrian government adamantly denied using chemical weapons in an artillery barrage targeting suburbs east of Damascus, calling the allegations “absolutely baseless”. The US, Britain and France demanded that a team of UN experts already in the country be granted immediate access to investigate the claims.

Videos and photographs showed row upon row of bodies wrapped in white shrouds lying on a tile floor, including more than a dozen children. There was little evidence of blood or conventional injuries and most appeared to have suffocated. Survivors of the purported attack, some twitching uncontrollably, lay on gurneys with oxygen masks covering their faces.

Activists and the opposition leadership gave widely varying death tolls, ranging from as low as 136 to as high as 1,300. But even the most conservative tally would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria’s civil war.

For months now, the rebels, along with the United States, Britain and France, have accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in its campaign to try to snuff out the rebellion against President Bashar Assad that began in March 2011. The regime and its ally, Russia, have denied the allegations, pinning the blame on the rebels.

The murky nature of the purported attacks, and the difficulty of gaining access to the sites amid the carnage of Syria’s war, has made it impossible to verify the claims. After months of negotiations, a UN team finally arrived in Damascus on Sunday to begin its investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. But the probe is limited to three sites and only seeks to determine whether chemical agents were used, not who unleashed them.

The timing of Wednesday’s attack — four days after the UN team’s arrival — raised questions about why the regime would use chemical agents now.

The White House said the US was “deeply concerned” by the reports, and spokesman Josh Earnest said the Obama administration had requested that the UN “urgently investigate this new allegation.”

“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 UN team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” Earnest said.

Almost exactly one year ago, President Barack Obama called chemical weapons a “red line” for potential military action, and in June, the US said it had conclusive evidence that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against opposition forces.

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