August 24, 2013

Aid group: 355 dead after Syria 'chemical' attack

The Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian state media accused rebels of using chemical arms against government troops in clashes Saturday near Damascus, while an international aid group said it has tallied 355 deaths from the purported chemical weapons attack earlier this week.

Doctors Without Borders said three hospitals it supports in the eastern Damascus region reported receiving roughly 3,600 patients with "neurotoxic symptoms" over less than three hours on Wednesday morning, when the attack in the eastern Ghouta area took place.

Of those, 355 died, said the Paris-based group. Death tolls have varied over the alleged attack, with Syrian anti-government activists reporting between 136 and 1,300 being killed.

Meanwhile, U.S. naval forces are moving closer to Syria as President Barack Obama considers military options for responding to the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad's government.

U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss ship movements publicly.

Obama emphasized that a quick intervention in the Syrian civil war was problematic, given the international considerations that should precede a military strike. The White House said the president would meet Saturday with his national security team to consider possible next steps by the United States. Officials say once the facts are clear, Obama will make a decision about how to proceed.

With the pressure increasing, Syria's state media Saturday accused rebels in the contested district of Jobar near Damascus of using chemical weapons against government troops advancing into the area. State media said the army offensive there had forced the rebels to resort to such weapons "as their last card."

State TV broadcast images of plastic jugs, gas masks, vials of an unspecified medication, explosives and other items that it said were seized from rebel hideouts Saturday. It did not, however, show any video of soldiers reportedly affected by toxic gas in the fighting in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus.

The claims could muddy the debate about who was responsible for Wednesday's alleged gas attack, which spurred demands for an independent investigation and renewed talk of potential international military action if chemical weapons were indeed used.

Just hours before the state media reports, the U.N. disarmament chief arrived in Damascus to press Assad's regime to allow U.N. experts to investigate the alleged attack. The regime has denied allegations that it was behind that attack, calling them "absolutely baseless" and suggesting they are an attempt to discredit the government.

The U.S., Britain, France and Russia have urged the Assad regime and the rebels fighting to overthrow him to cooperate with the United Nations and allow a team of experts already in Syria to look into the latest purported use of chemical agents. The U.N. secretary-general dispatched Angela Kane, the high representative for disarmament affairs, to push for a speedy investigation into Wednesday's purported attack. She did not speak to reporters upon her arrival in Damascus Saturday.

The state news agency said several government troops who took part in the Jobar offensive experienced severe trouble breathing or even "suffocation" after "armed terrorist groups used chemical weapons." It was not clear what was meant by "suffocation" and the report mentioned no fatalities among the troops.

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