The White House calls on the United Nations to urgently investigate allegations of massive deadly chemical weapons use by Syrian government forces.
The Damascus Media Office, an opposition monitoring group, has claimed that 494 people were killed in a gas attack and shelling in various Damascus suburbs.
It is clear that if they (reports of attacks) are verified, it would mark a shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria. William Hague
The Assad regime has denied such an attack, with state television quoting a source as saying there was “no truth whatsoever” in the claims.
While the White House said it had no independent verification of the incident and was seeking additional information, it demanded that the Syrian government allow a U.N. team already in the country “immediate and unfettered access” to the location of the alleged attack.
The European Union also called for a “thorough and immediate” investigation into claims that hundreds of Syrians, including women and children, were killed in the gas attack.
Speaking in Brussels, the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: “any use of chemical weapons, by any side in Syria, would be totally unacceptable.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “I am deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of people, including children, have been killed in airstrikes and a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas near Damascus.
“These reports are uncorroborated and we are urgently seeking more information. But it is clear that if they are verified, it would mark a shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
“Those who order the use of chemical weapons, and those who use them, should be in no doubt that we will work in every way we can to hold them to account.
Speaking later in Paris Mr Hague told reporters “We hope the U.N. team in Damascus will be given immediate and unrestricted access to this area to try and establish the truth. There is no reason not to be given access when (the site) is not so many miles from where they are doing their work now,”
Following earlier calls from the Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby for UN inspectors to immediately investigate the reports, a United Nations spokesperson tweeted: “UNSG [United Nations Secretary General] is aware of the reports about an alleged gas attack in Syria. We are trying to find out more.”
#UNSG is aware of the reports about an alleged gas attack in Syria. We are trying to find out more.
— UN Spokesperson (@UN_Spokesperson) August 21, 2013
The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich also called for a “fair and professional investigation” of the incident, but added that its timing – shortly after the arrival of UN weapons inspectors in Syria: “cannot but suggest that once again we are dealing with a pre-planned provocation [by the opposition].”
Distressing video and still photos, showing both efforts to treat patients and large numbers of corpses, were posted online by activists.
Commenting in a blog on the video footage said to show the aftemath of the attack, weapons expert Dr Jean Pascal Zanders, said that compared to previous alleged chemical weapons attacks, the latest footage seemed to offer more convincing evidence of asphyxiation through poisoning.
Dr Zanders writes: “It is clear that something terrible has happened. The scenes could not have been stage managed. However, it is extremely puzzling that government forces would launch a chemical attack precisely at the moment when UN inspectors are finally in the country to investigate some of the earlier allegations.”
He added that if the UN team does investigate “this time around, the forensic, medical and other physical evidence would still be around and the team would be able to guarantee the integrity of the chain of custody of all evidence, something that was lacking in all previous claims.”
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported intense shelling in the Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma areas of the city.
It quoted rebel activists as saying regime forces had fired “rockets with poisonous gas heads” that had killed tens of people.
Bayan Baker, a nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, said the death toll from the attack, collated from medical centres in the region, was 213.
Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said hundreds of people were killed or injured in the shelling.
The alleged attack came as a 20-strong UN team began its work in Syria investigating claims of chemical weapons use.
The team, led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, will examine an alleged chemical weapons attack, which both sides of the bloody civil war claim was carried out by the other, at Khan al-Assal near Aleppo.
It will also visit two other sites which have been kept secret for security reasons.
Read more: Syria interactive - Damascus, the chemical weapons capital
Following Wednesday’s reports, the Observatory called on the UN team in Syria and all international organizations “to visit the stricken areas and to guarantee that medical and relief supplies reach the people as soon as possible.”
It also called for an investigation into the attack.
The latest bloodshed follows reports on Channel 4 News of a “river of refugees” fleeing Syria for Iraq, with 30,000 crossing the border in three days.