Troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pounded a Damascus suburb with heavy artillery, leaving dozens of people dead in what opposition groups say was a “poisonous gas” attack.
The troops used “massive firepower” in the overnight attack that killed dozens and was still going on in the morning, Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Coventry, U.K.-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory, said by phone. The government denied carrying out a chemical assault.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission said on its Facebook page that the attack on the Ghouta district near Damascus airport included “poisonous” gas. The rebel Free Syrian Army said 1,188 people were killed in Ghouta, Al Arabiya television station said. The toll could not be independently verified. Another opposition group, the Damascus Media Office, said the capital’s eastern suburbs spent “a tragic night” after being pounded by shells loaded with chemicals.
The National Syrian Coalition, the main political opposition, called on the United Nations Security Council to convene immediately.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the U.K. will raise this incident at the council.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said if Syria had chemical weapons it would never use them on its own people. The army, in a statement on state television, said the claims reflect the “hysterical” state of the opposition.
“If verified, this would be a shocking escalation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria,” Hague told reporters today in Brussels. “We are determined the people responsible will one day be held to account.”
France will also seek a UN inquiry, its women’s rights minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, said.
UN inspectors, led by Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom, are currently in Syria investigating previous claims of chemical weapons use in the conflict that began in March 2011. The team arrived in Damascus Aug. 18 at the government’s invitation. Hague said the team should be given “unrestricted access” to the Damascus suburb.
The allegations are an attempt at “distracting” the UN inspectors from their mission, according to a statement read on state television, which cited an unidentified official.
“Is it logical that Syria would use chemical weapons while the UN team is in Damascus or that it would use it so close to the capital while the wind is blowing?” Syrian lawmaker Fayez Sayegh said by phone from Damascus.
Sayegh said the government’s troops and warplanes had targeted armed insurgents in the suburbs and tried to avoid harming civilians.
Arab television channels including Al Arabiya and al-Jazeera, which the Syrian government accuses of bias against it, aired video taken by opposition members showing rooms of dead civilians, including children.
Abdurrahman said he could not confirm the allegations and called on the UN team to investigate them because they are in the country.
President Barack Obama, who in June pledged increased support for rebel forces in Syria not allied with Muslim extremists, has repeatedly said the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime would cross a “red line” for the U.S. Both sides in the conflict have accused each other of using chemical weapons.
The Syrian conflict began on the heels of the widespread revolts in Arab nations in 2011. More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria and millions have either been displaced or become refugees in neighboring countries, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a July 25 meeting in New York.