A picture taken by a freelance photographer shows a man carrying the body of a Syrian girl in Arbeen, near Damascus, on Wednesday. (AP)
Beirut/Amman, Aug. 21 (Reuters): Syria’s Opposition accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of gassing many hundreds of people — by one report as many as 1,300 — today in what would, if confirmed, be the world’s worst chemical weapons attack in decades.
Western and regional countries called for UN chemical weapons investigators — who arrived in Damascus just three days ago — to be urgently dispatched to the scene of one of the deadliest incidents of the two-year-old civil war.
Russia, too, urged an “objective” investigation but Assad’s biggest foreign ally also heaped scepticism on his enemies’ claims. A foreign ministry spokesman in Moscow said the release of gas after UN inspectors arrived suggested that it was a rebel “provocation” to discredit Syria’s government.
Images, including some by freelance photographers supplied to Reuters, showed scores of bodies including of small children, laid on the floor of a clinic with no visible signs of injuries. Reuters was not able to verify the cause of their deaths. The Syrian government denied that it had used chemical arms.
Noting the “criminal act” took place as the UN team got to work, the Russian spokesman said: “This cannot but suggest that once again we are dealing with a pre-planned provocation ... We call on all those who can influence the armed extremists make every effort to end provocations with chemical agents.”
George Sabra, one of the leading opponents of Assad, said the death toll was 1,300 killed by poison gas released over suburbs east of Damascus. “Today’s crimes are ... not the first time the regime has used chemical weapons. But they constitute a turning point in the regime’s operations,” he said in Istanbul. “This time it was for annihilation rather than terror.”
An Opposition monitoring group, citing figures compiled from medical clinics in the Damascus suburbs, put the death toll at 494 — 90 per cent of them killed by gas, the rest by bombing and conventional arms. The rebel Syrian National Coalition said 650 people had been killed.
If the cause of death and the scale of the killing were confirmed, it would be the worst known use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.
Activists said rockets with chemical agents hit the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar during fierce pre-dawn bombardment by government forces.
The Damascus Media Office monitoring centre said 150 bodies were counted in Hammouriya, 100 in Kfar Batna, 67 in Saqba, 61 in Douma, 76 in Mouadamiya and 40 in Irbib.
Residents of the capital said mortars later hit government-held areas in Faris Khoury Street and the Malki district, where Assad has a residence. There were no reports of injuries. Heavy air strikes continued throughout the day against the rebel suburbs of Mouadamiya and Jobar.
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 it has caches of undeclared mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agents. Assad’s officials have said they would never use poison gas — if they had it — against Syrians.