Syrian activists claim hundreds killed in chemical weapons attack

President Bashar al-Assad's forces reportedly fired nerve gas on rebel-controlled areas near Damascus

By News Desk - Noga Tarnopolsky
Published August 21, 2013 12:50PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global PostHundreds of people died Wednesday after Syrian government forces fired nerve gas on rebel strongholds near Damascus, the opposition says, in what activists are describing as one of the worst atrocities in Syria's two-year civil war.

Rockets loaded with the poisonous gas landed on the suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar in Syria's Ghouta region, to the east of the capital, activists told Reuters.

The Syrian government denies the reports.

One nurse told Reuters that regional medical centers had counted a combined total of 213 fatalities, including women and children. Syria's main opposition alliance,the Syrian National Coalition, put the number as high as 650.

Graphic videos posted online purported to show rows of victims — including several young children — lying motionless in makeshift hospitals. Their authenticity cannot be established.

"I saw many children lying on beds as if they were sleeping, but unfortunately they were dead," one activist who said he helped recover the bodies told the New York Times from Damascus.

In Israel, where government and military officials have repeatedly accused President Bashar al-Assad's forces of using chemical weapons, army radio played an interview with one local doctor who told a Syrian TV network that he was looking at up to 1,000 dead, entire families, many children.

"A massacre," he said, his voice breaking, "and the world looks away."

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll lower, telling the Associated Press that "tens of people" were killed. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said hundreds were dead or injured.

None of the claims have been independently verified.

Hospitals in northern Israel that regularly treat wounded Syrians said they had not received any new patients from across the border Wednesday — including two, the Western Galilee hospital and Haifa's Rambam hospital, that are set up specifically for chemical weapons injuries. "With chemicals, you're dead or you're alive," a Rambam spokesman said.

Syrian officials called the reports "completely baseless," according to state news agency SANA. They claimed the story was an attempt to "distract" the United Nations from its investigation into earlier allegations of chemical weapon use.

UN inspectors arrived in Syria on Sunday to begin looking into claims that both government and rebel forces have used poison gas during the conflict.

They are due to visit three sites, including the village of Khan al-Assal near the northern city of Aleppo, where dozens died in an attack on March 19 that each side blames on the other.

Amid appeals by activists, UN Security Council member France said it would ask the inspectors to add Ghouta to their itinerary to investigate the latest claims.

UN spokesperson said that the organization was aware of the reports and would try to find out more.

Its inspectors require permission from Assad's government, however, and given the limited access they've been granted so far, it seems unlikely they'll be permitted to go anywhere other than the three sites already agreed.

Reports on Israel Army Radio said that the inspectors were being prevented from leaving their hotel rooms in Damascus Wednesday morning.

"We thought this regime would not use chemical weapons, at least these days with the presence of the UN inspectors," the Damascus activist, Abu Yassin, told the Times. "It is reckless. The regime is saying, 'I don't care.'"

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