Thursday, December 12, 2013
By Bassem Mroue / The Associated Press
BEIRUT — Syrian anti-government activists accused the regime of carrying out a toxic gas attack that killed at least 100 people, including many children as they slept, during intense artillery and rocket barrages Wednesday on the eastern suburbs of Damascus that are part of a fierce government offensive in the area.
This citizen journalism image provided by the Local Committee of Arbeen shows a Syrian girl receiving treatment at a makeshift hospital, in Arbeen, Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday. The image has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting.
This citizen journalism image provided by the Media Office Of Douma City shows Syrian men lying on the ground as they wait for treatment after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces. The photo was authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting.
The attack coincided with the visit by a 20-member U.N. chemical weapons team to Syria to investigate three sites where attacks allegedly occurred during the past year. Their presence raises questions about why the regime — which called the claims of the attack Wednesday "absolutely baseless" — would use chemical agents at this time.
Shocking images emerged from the purported attack, showing pale, lifeless bodies of children lined up on floors of makeshift hospitals and others with oxygen masks on their faces as they were attended to by paramedics. One appeared to be a toddler clad in diapers. There was no visible blood or wounds on their skin.
The reported death toll Wednesday would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria's civil war. There were conflicting reports, however, as to what exactly transpired and the death toll ranged from a hundred to 1,300. Syria's Information Minister called the activists' claim a "disillusioned and fabricated one whose objective is to deviate and mislead" the U.N. mission.
France's president demanded the United Nations be granted access to the site of Wednesday's alleged attack, while Britain's foreign secretary said if the claims are verified it would mark "a shocking escalation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria."
The White House said the U.S. was "deeply concerned" by the reports. Spokesman Josh Earnest said the White House had requested that the U.N. "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 U.N. team's immediate and unfettered access to this site," Earnest said.
Syria's ally Russia, however, described the reports as "alarmist." Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich issued a statement in which he said the "aggressive information campaign" laying full blame on the Syrian government side suggests this is a planned provocation aimed at undermining efforts to convene peace talks between the two sides.
The heavy shelling starting around 3 a.m. local time pounded the capital's eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. The bombardment, as well as the sound of fighter jets, could be heard by residents of the Syrian capital throughout the night and early Wednesday. Gray smoke hung over towns in the eastern suburbs.
Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman cited activists in the area who said "poisonous gas" was fired in rockets as well as from the air in the attack. He said that he has documented at least 100 deaths, but said it was not clear whether the victims died from shelling or toxic gas.
However, he and other opposition groups described a ferocious offensive on the eastern suburbs known as eastern Ghouta, saying "hundreds" of shells and rockets were unleashed by regime forces Wednesday on the region.
Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said hundreds of people were killed or injured in the shelling. The Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main opposition group in exile, put the number at 1,300. The group said it was basing its claim on accounts and photographs by activists on the ground.
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