World powers, including Russia and France, demanded immediate access for a team of UN inspectors already in Syria to visit the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus on Thursday.
The Syrian government has flatly denied allegations that it was behind the attack.
The Syrian National Coalition claimed more than 1,300 people had died on Wednesday in Ghouta, while videos and photographs showed scenes of people foaming at the mouth and of bodies stacked up in morgues.
Casualty numbers are hard to verify in the war-torn country. Data collected by AFP sources on Wednesday confirmed at least 200 deaths.
In one video posted on YouTube, children are seen receiving first aid in a field hospital, notably oxygen to help them breathe. Doctors appear to be trying to resuscitate unconscious children.
Al-Akhbar could not immediately verify the videos’ authenticity.
Images, including some by freelance photographers supplied to Reuters, showed scores of bodies – some of them small children – laid out on floors with no visible signs of external injury. Some showed people with foam around their mouths.
The head of the UN inspection mission, Aake Sellstroem, was in talks with Damascus “on all issues pertaining to the alleged use of chemical weapons, including this most recent reported incident,” a UN statement said.
The United Nation Security Council did not explicitly demand a UN investigation of the incident, although it said “clarity” was needed and welcomed UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s calls for a prompt investigation by the inspection team in Syria.
An earlier Western-drafted statement submitted to the Security Council, seen by Reuters, was not approved. The final version of the statement was watered down to accommodate objections from Russia and China, diplomats said. Moscow and Beijing have vetoed previous Western efforts to impose UN penalties on Assad.
However, Russia urged the Syrian government and the United Nations on Thursday to agree on a visit by chemical weapons experts to the site of the alleged gas attack.
Russia, Assad’s strongest ally during the more-than-two-year-old conflict, has said that civilians were killed by “a homemade rocket loaded with an unidentified chemical agent” and that the attack was likely a provocation by opposition forces meant to place blame on the Syrian president.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Syria’s position on sending inspectors to the site of the reported attack should be respected but dismissed the suggestion that Russia would object to such an investigation.
“The group of observers are already in place. Such a position was agreed upon in the U.N. Security Council. How can we object? We, quite the opposite, have an interest in the investigation into what happened happen objectively,” he said.
“(The United Nations and Syria) have agreed on cooperation in three areas. If there is a need to achieve clarification in this case – and judging by everything, there is – then they need to agree,” he told a news conference.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest demanded the inspectors be given “immediate access to witnesses and affected individuals” and “the ability to examine and collect physical evidence without any interference or manipulation from the Syrian government.”
Washington has previously described chemical weapons use as a red line that might prompt it to intervene militarily in Syria.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged a reaction “with force” if the massacre was confirmed.
“If it is proven, France’s position is that there must be a reaction, a reaction that could take the form of a reaction with force,” Fabius told BFM-TV. However, Fabius clarified that there was no question of sending French troops on the ground.
Human rights groups backed calls for access for the UN inspectors to the sites of the alleged attacks.
Should the allegations be true, “the attacks would amount to war crimes,” said Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, who urged the UN inspectors to visit the site.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the descriptions its staff heard from witnesses are “consistent with the use of chemical nerve agents.”
“A huge number of people in Ghouta are dead, doctors and witnesses are describing horrific details that look like a chemical weapons attack and the government claims it didn’t do it,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s acting Middle East director.
“The only way to find out what really happened in Ghouta is to let UN inspectors in,” Stork added.
The UN inspectors arrived in Damascus on Sunday with a strict mandate to investigate three sites for the alleged use of chemical weapons.
They are Khan al-Assal in the northern province of Aleppo, where rebels and the army blamed each other for using chemical weapons in March, as well as Ataybeh near Damascus and Homs in central Syria. Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said the allegations of chemical attacks, just days after the arrival of a UN investigation team, were “illogical and fabricated.”
A high-ranking Syrian security source also described the idea that the army would use chemical weapons while UN weapons inspectors were working inside the country as “political suicide”.
Wednesday “was the first day of the UN mission’s work and using chemical weapons at this time would have been political suicide”, the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“All analysts say that it is not in our current interest to use chemical weapons while the commission is on the ground,” he added.
Many activists in the opposition area say they had lost interest in UN investigations or help from Western powers abroad.
“The families of Ghouta have lost hope in any investigation committees, which have offered us no relief since the revolution began two years ago … We are 7 kilometers away, just a 5 minute car ride from where they are staying. We’re being exterminated with poison gas while they drink their coffee and sit inside their hotels,” activist Bara Abdelraman told Reuters, speaking by Skype.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria’s 29-month war, the UN says. Millions more have been forced to flee their homes.
(AFP, Reuters, Al-Akhbar)