Syrian troops find chemical agents in tunnels used by rebels: State TV
BEIRUT - ReutersSyrian state television said soldiers found chemical materials on Aug. 24 in tunnels that had been used by rebels, rejecting blame for a nerve gas attack that killed hundreds this week and heightened Western calls for foreign intervention.
Syrian opposition accounts that between 500 and well over 1,000 civilians were killed by gas in munitions fired by pro-government forces, and video footage of victims' bodies, have stoked demands abroad for a robust, U.S.-led response after 2-1/2 years of international inaction on Syria's conflict.
In an attempt to strengthen the government's denials of responsibility for the chemical assault in Damascus's embattled suburbs, Syrian TV said soldiers came across chemical agents in rebel tunnels during an advance into the Jobar district.
"Army heroes are entering the tunnels of the terrorists and saw chemical agents," it quoted a "news source" as saying. "In some cases, soldiers are suffocating while entering Jobar. Ambulances came to rescue the people suffocating."
Soldiers discovered a cache of gas masks and imported pills used to ward off exposure to chemical attacks, it said, promising to air footage of "material and drums" later. The report could be independently confirmed.
State television further accused the rebels of using poison gas "as a last resort after [government forces] achieved big gains during the last few days in Jobar."
Syrian opposition activists say President Bashar al-Assad's forces fired nerve gas projectiles into Jobar and other rebellious suburbs before dawn on Wednesday. Later in the week, activists crossed front lines around Damascus to smuggle out tissue samples from victims of the attack.
The Syrian government and the rebels blamed one another for several previous reported cases of poison gas attacks, both denying responsibility. No independent verification of details has been possible due to a lack of access to battle zones.
Damascus has said it would never deploy chemical weapons against its own citizens, and has suggested rebels may have carried out the latest attack themselves to provoke foreign intervention.
Obama has long been hesitant to intervene in Syria, wary of its position straddling fault lines of wider sectarian conflict in the Middle East, and he reiterated such reluctance on Aug. 23.
Intelligence shows contrary
But, in a development that could raise pressure on Obama to act, American and European security sources said U.S. and allied intelligence agencies had made a preliminary assessment that chemical weapons were used by pro-Assad forces this week.
Major world powers - including Russia, Assad's main ally which has long blocked U.N.-sponsored intervention against him - have urged the Syrian leader to cooperate with a U.N. inspection team that arrived on Sunday to pursue earlier allegations of chemical weapons assaults in the civil war.
U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane arrived to Damascus on Saturday to press for a Syrian government green light for inspectors to examine areas of Damascus suburbs said
to have been targeted on Wednesday.
Al-Assad's government has not said whether it will grant such access despite increasing pressure from the United Nations, Western and Gulf Arab countries and Russia. If confirmed, it would be the world's deadliest chemical attack in decades.