Syrian forces bombard Damascus suburbs after rebels say gas attack kills hundreds
BEIRUT/AMMAN - Reuters
Men wearing masks walk along a deserted street that was hit by what activists said was a gas attack in the Damascus suburb of Ain Tarma, August 21, 2013. REUTERS PhotoSyrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces bombarded rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Thursday, activists said, keeping up pressure on the besieged region a day after the opposition accused the army of gassing hundreds in a chemical weapons attack.
With Wednesday's death toll estimated between 500 and 1,300, what would be the world's most lethal chemical weapons attack since the 1980s prompted an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council in New York.
Opposition activists said men, women and children were killed as they slept.
The council did not explicitly demand a U.N. investigation of the incident, although it said "clarity" was needed and welcomed U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon's calls for a prompt investigation by the U.N. inspection team in Syria, led by Ake Sellstrom.
An earlier Western-drafted statement submitted to the 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 U.N. penalties on Assad.
The Syrian opposition said President Bashar al-Assad's forces fired rockets that released deadly fumes over rebel-held eastern Damascus suburbs, which are part of what is known as the Ghouta. The area is an expanse of old farmland dotted with large built up areas inhabited mostly by members of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority that have been at the forefront of the uprising against Assad's Alawite rule.
Assad's Shi'ite backer Iran said the Syrian government could not have been behind the possible chemical weapon attack as Assad had the upper hand in the fighting.
A report by the opposition al-Sham Research Centre said the use of chemical weapons on a scale unseen since their use was first reported last year is "a message" from Assad to Turkey and the Arab Sunni backers of the revolt.
They appeared to have increased their support for the armed opposition, and the attack showed that Assad was not afraid of escalating the conflict, unleashing a new wave or refugees and destabilising the region, the centre said.
In Ghouta on Thursday, rockets fired from multiple launchers and heavy mortar rounds hit the neighbourhoods of Jobar and Zamalka, which are on the eastern outskirts of the capital, the activists said.
Rockets also hit the nearby district of Qaboun to the north, where rebel fighters have repelled attempts by loyalist forces to overrun the area, and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp area to the south, the activists added.
Speaking from Ghouta, activist Khaled Amer said explosions from rockets hitting Zamalka were being heard. In Jobar, a Damascus neighbourhood only 3 km (2 miles) from the historic centre of the ancient capital, explosions were heard at an army fortification and another compound housing tanks, apparently from a rebel attack on the facilities.
Fadi al-Shami of the Tarhrir al-Sham Brigade, which operates in the eastern Ghouta region, 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.
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said the allegations were "illogical and fabricated." Assad's officials have said they would never use poison gas against Syrians. The United States and European allies believe Assad's forces have used small amounts of sarin before, hence the current U.N. visit.