Syria’s death toll from a day of violence in Damascus escalates ever higher, according to rebels, as a neighbourhood “full of dead people” is discovered.
Shocking images emerged from Syria on Wednesday showing men, women and children apparently suffering from the effects of chemical weapons attacks. Up to 1,300 people are reported to have been killed in the attack on rebel held areas in east Damascus.
Bombardment of the area continued on Thursday (see video, which is from a social media site and is unverified, above).
A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army said 1,729 deaths had been documented in Damascus from Wednesday’s violence, and added that 6,000 people were also suffering from breathing problems.
There would have to be reaction with force. Laurent Fabius, French foreign minister
Estimates had previously put the death toll between 500 and 1,300.
Syrian National Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh said the number of dead was expected to rise.
“We expect the number (of dead) to grow because we just discovered a neighbourhood in Zamalka where there are houses full of dead people,” he said.
On Thursday France became the first country to threaten force against the Assad regime, if the allegations of chemical weapons use are proved to be true.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said force would need to be used if allegations were proved to be true, but added there was no question of “troops on the ground”.
“There would have to be reaction with force in Syria from the international community, but there is no question of sending troops on the ground,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told French television network BFM.
We cannot rule out any option, in accordance with international law, that might save innocent lives in Syria. Foreign Office
A spokesman for the British Foreign office, responding to questions over the UK’s stance on the French statement, said the immediate priority was to “verify the facts”.
“Yesterday saw a serious escalation in the crisis in Syria,” a spokesman said. “Our immediate priority is to verify the facts and ensure the UN team is granted access to investigate these latest reports.
“We believe a political solution is the best way to end the bloodshed. However, the prime minister and foreign fecretary have said many times we cannot rule out any option, in accordance with international law, that might save innocent lives in Syria.”
All red lines have been crossed. Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish foreign minister
Turkey’s foreign minister also said on Thursday that “all red lines” have been crossed, but did not go as far as saying force would be needed.
Ahmet Davutoglu said: “All red lines have been crossed but still the UN Security Council has not even been able to take a decision. This is a responsibility for the sides who still set these red lines and for all of us.”
Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd said “no civilised country can stand by” if the allegations that Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons prove to be true (see video, below).
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle demanded on Thursday that Syria grant full access to United Nations chemicals weapons experts to investigate the chemical weapons allegations.
Assad’s forces continue bombarding rebel-held suburbs in Damascus the day after the alleged chemical attack. Activists said on Thursday that shelling of eastern parts of Damascus was continuing, in what appears to be a sudden tactical move to reclaim the Syrian capital.
Rockets fired from multiple launchers were reported to have hit the neighbourhood of Jobar, the furthest point rebels have moved into the city, and Zamalka.
Activists also said rockets hit the area of Qaboun, also in the east of the city, and the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp.
Rebels attacking Damascus had previously managed to push through the east of the city, which is flat, not heavily built up, and provides cover in larges swathes of wooded countryside.
In the east they pushed as close as two miles to Damascus city centre at Jobar, and have been waging a street-by-street battle against Assad’s forces.
The south west of the city has also been a focal point of fighting, where rebels have been pushing towards the strategically important Mazeh military airport.
(Click on the map above to view the Channel 4 News interactive map of Damascus – the chemcial weapons capital)
Speaking from the east of Damascus, activist Khaled Amer said explosions from rockets hitting Zamalka were being heard.
Explosions have also been heard from an army fortification and compound housing tanks in Jobar, apparently from a rebel attack on facilities.
Fadi al-Shami of the Tarhrir al-Sham Brigade, said scattered fighting was taking place along the Jobar-Zamalka axis and that opposition forces have moved closer to loyalist lines, partly to be in safer positions in case of another chemical attack.
The continued fighting is against a backdrop of increasing international pressure for the claims of chemical weapons use to be explored.
The US, Britain and France have called for the UN to investigate the claims. UN inspectors are currently in Damascus to investigate previous chemical weapons attacks claims in three areas.
The White House demanded “immediate and unfettered access” to the site for the UN investigative team.
However, China has called on the UN inspection team to “fully consult” with theSyrian government, as it ascertains “what really happened”.
“China’s position is very clear,” a statement from the foreign ministry said: “It does not matter what side in Syria uses chemical weapons, China resolutely opposes it.
“At present, the UN’s chemical weapons inspection team for Syria is on the ground beginning its investigations, and (China) hopes that the team fully consults with the Syrian government and maintains an objective, impartial and professional stance, to ascertain what really happened.”
The Syrian government has denied it has launched a chemical weapons attack.
A military statement said on Wednesday: “The media channels of sedition and misinformation have lied as usual that the Syrian Arab Army used chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus today.
“The general leadership of the army confirms they are completely false and are a part of the dirty media war that is led by some countries, through the media, against Syria.”
However, a post on a Syrian government news Facebook page posted on Wednesday indicated that a major military operation was taking place.
“What the heroes of the Syrian army did today in Muadamiyah, Jobar, al-Qaboun, and even in Aleppo, is a delicate, sudden and very powerful military operation,” it read.
Iran has also supported the Syrian government, saying: “If the use of chemical weapons is true, it has definitely been carried out by terrorist … groups, because they have proved in action that they refrain from no crime.”
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons expert from SecureBio, told Channel 4 News that on the present evidence it looks like a regime “massacre”.
“This is very sophisticated weaponry, this is very sophisticated science, you can’t sort of knock it up in your backroom and deliver it,” he said.
“I’m not aware that the rebels have that capability, so at the moment, until we know more, it is looking very much like it is a regime delivered massacre.”
(View the Channel 4 News report on the Damascus attack below)