UN meets as Syria ‘chemical attack’ kills hundreds
Opposition leader says death toll from suspected gas attack could be as high as 1,300
A Syrian military officer appeared on state television and said the allegations were untrue and a sign of “hysteria and floundering“ by Assad‘s opponents. Information Minister Omran Zoabi said the allegations were “illogical and fabricated“.
The head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition said Assad‘s forces had carried out a massacre: “This is a chance for the (UN inspectors) to see with their own eyes this massacre and know that this regime is a criminal one,“ Ahmed Jarba said.
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.
Dr Assad’s officials have said they would never use poison gas - if they had it - against Syrians. The United States and European allies believe Dr Assad’s forces used small amounts of sarin gas in attacks in the past, which Washington called a “red line“ that justified international military aid for the rebels.
Dr Assad’s government has responded in the past by accusing the rebels of using chemical weapons, which they deny. Western countries say they do not believe the rebels have access to poison gas.
Khaled Omar of the opposition Local Council in Ain Tarma said he saw at least 80 bodies at the Hajjah Hospital in Ain Tarma and at a makeshift clinic at Tatbiqiya School in the nearby district of Saqba.
“The attack took place at around 3.00am (0000 GMT). Most of those killed were in their homes,“ Mr Omar said.
An activist working with Ahrar al-Sham rebel unit in the Erbin district east of the capital who used the name Abu Nidal said many of those who died were rescuers who were overcome with poison when they arrived at the scene.
“We believe there was a group of initial responders who died or were wounded, because when we went in later, we saw men collapsed on staircases or inside doorways and it looks like they were trying to go in to help the wounded and then were hurt themselves,“ he told Reuters by Skype.
“At first none of us knew there were chemical agents because it seemed like just another night of air strikes, and no one was anticipating chemical weapons use, especially with UN monitors in town.“
The timing of the allegations - just three days after the UN experts checked in to a Damascus hotel a few kilometres to the east at the start of their mission - was surprising.
“It would be very peculiar if it was the government to do this at the exact moment the international inspectors come into the country,“ said Rolf Ekeus, a retired Swedish diplomat who headed a team of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq in the 1990s.
“At the least, it wouldn‘t be very clever.“