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DAMASCUS, Syria—Syrian opposition groups said government forces killed more than 1,000 people in the capital's suburbs in poison gas attacks Wednesday with United Nations chemical-weapons experts just miles away.
Syrian authorities denied the accusations, but said they were conducting military operations in several areas around Damascus.
The accusations came three days after the team of U.N. inspectors arrived in the Syrian capital to investigate prior allegations that both the government and rebels have used chemical weapons, including toxic nerve agents, in the civil war.
The Local Coordination Committees—a network of opposition activists operating throughout Syria—said that at least 1,320 people were killed in "shelling with poison gases" on the towns of Ain Tarma and Zamalka in the capital's eastern suburbs and the town of Moadamiyah in the western suburbs.
|Slaughter: Syrian activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in Damascus|
|Bodies of people, including children, activists say were killed by nerve gas|
|Innocent: Dead bodies of Syrian children after an alleged poisonous gas rocket attack fired by regime forces|
"The international community must bear its responsibility toward the massacre," the head of the Western-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition, Ahmed al-Jarba, told the Al-Arabiya news channel, which is owned by Saudi Arabia, an opponent of the Syrian government.
Video clips purportedly filmed by rebels and activists and broadcast on the Saudi government-owned Al-Arabiya news channel showed rows of children allegedly killed in gas attacks Wednesday lined up on the floor of what appeared to be a field hospital. No wounds were visible.
An activist identified by the same channel as Aram al-Doumani said the regime fired several ballistic missiles equipped with warheads bearing the toxic nerve agent sarin against rebel areas starting in the early hours of Wednesday.
Neither the rebel claims nor the authenticity of video clips of alleged victims released by the opposition could be independently verified.
|A man, affected by what activists say is nerve gas, is treated in the Damascus suburbs of Jesreen|
|A boy who survived what activists say is a gas attack cries as he takes shelter inside a mosque in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus|
|This image grab taken from a video uploaded on YouTube allegedly shows Syrians covering a mass grave containing bodies of victims of the attack. The atrocity seems all too familiar to the children and young men standing around the grave site|
Syria's government denied the accusations. "There is absolutely no truth to reports about the use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta," a Syrian Ministry of Information official said, according to Syrian state media, using the local term for the capital's suburbs.
He said Al-Arabiya and media outlet Al Jazeera, which is owned by Syrian government opponent Qatar, were trying to influence the U.N. team during its visit.
"What is being broadcast by the channels that are complicit in the shedding of Syrian blood is false and an attempt to derail the chemical-weapons investigation committee and prevent it from carrying out its mission," he said in the state media report.
The U.N. Security Council was set to meet Wednesday afternoon in an emergency session on the alleged chemical-weapons attacks. The U.S., U.K., Germany and others issued statements expressing shock, and called for U.N. experts to investigate, while Syrian ally Russia accused rebels of launching a chemical attack and blaming it on the regime in order to gain U.N. support and thwart a planned peace conference in Geneva.
U.K. Foreign Minister William Hague called for the Syrian government to allow the U.N. team immediate access to the area where the alleged attacks took place. "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," he said.
|Many women and children were among the dead. The area reportedly bombed is residential|
|Victim: A Syrian girl receiving treatment at a makeshift hospital, in Arbeen, Damascus|
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. was deeply concerned. "We are working urgently to gather additional information," he said.
The claims came one year to the day after U.S. President Barack Obama said that use of weapons of mass destruction by the Syrian regime would constitute a "red line" prompting U.S. intervention.
In June, Washington said it had "high confidence" that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons on a small scale.
Yet in the hours before the Security Council was set to convene, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the Russian government had information that rebels had launched a chemical weapon in a "pre-planned provocation," carried out near Damascus just as the U.N. experts were beginning their work.
"All of this really looks like an attempt, at any cost, to create a reason to produce demands for the U.N. Security Council to side with the regime's opponents and undermine the chances of convening the Geneva conference," Mr. Lukashevich said.
A Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs official on Wednesday reiterated Syria's position that it would never use weapons of mass destruction "if they exist" against its own people.
The Syrian opposition previously accused the regime of carrying out more than a dozen chemical-weapons attacks since December.
The 13-person team of U.N. weapons inspectors began its work investigating other sites of alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria on Monday, after seeking entry into the country for months.
The team is based around five to 10 miles from the sites of Wednesday's alleged chemical weapons attacks.
The head of the team, Swedish chemical weapons expert Ake Sellstrom, was in discussions with the Syrian government about Wednesday's allegations, the U.N. said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed shock at the reports of the alleged attacks Wednesday, and reaffirmed "his determination to ensure a thorough investigation of the reported alleged incidents," according to a statement Wednesday. Any such use would violate international humanitarian law, the statement said.
The government of President Bashar al-Assad had welcomed the arrival of the U.N. team and promised full cooperation. One official told The Wall Street Journal that inspectors would be allowed to travel to the town of Khan al-Assal in northern Syria, where both sides accused each other in March of using chemical weapons. The town fell in rebel hands last month after an offensive in which dozens of surrendering soldiers were executed.
On Monday, Mr. Ban said the inspection team in Syria represented "the first probe of allegations of the use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century."
The areas that were allegedly hit by chemical weapons on Wednesday have been the scenes of fierce battles between rebels and government forces for months. They are mostly inaccessible to journalists and are besieged by Syrian military and security forces.
A series of loud explosions reverberated across the capital starting at 3 a.m. In the hours that followed, the sound of government rocket launchers and artillery hitting rebel areas could be heard intermittently.
|Activists say most of those killed were in their homes|
Later in the day plumes of smoke were seen rising from several areas around Damascus while most businesses inside the city, which is under regime control, shut early as people rushed to get home.
"Units of our heroic army have destroyed terror hide-outs and gatherings in a number of villages and towns in the Damascus suburbs killing and wounding several terrorists," a Syrian security official told state media, using a term often used by the regime to describe rebels.- wsj.com and Daily Mail