Syria on Thursday came under intense pressure to allow UN weapons inspectors to visit the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus which the opposition says left hundreds dead and provoked revulsion around the world.
Damascus has flatly denied the allegations but a US official cited by the Wall Street Journal said there were “strong indications” that regime forces had indeed unleashed chemical weapons Wednesday during attacks on rebel zones near the capital.
France said it is seeking a reaction with “force” if allegations by the National Coalition, the main opposition group, of a massacre involving chemical weapons are confirmed.
The Coalition said more than 1,300 people had died while videos and photographs showed scenes of people foaming at the mouth and of bodies stacked up in morgues.
In one video posted on YouTube, children are seen receiving first aid in a field hospital, notably oxygen to help them breathe. Doctors appear to be trying to resuscitate unconscious children.
Another video showed what activists said was a case of hysteria following a chemical strike in the eastern suburbs. The authenticity of the videos has not immediately been verified.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Syrian forces on Thursday bombed and shelled a number of rebel zones where the Coalition alleged the attacks took place the previous day.
Western governments demanded immediate access for a team of UN inspectors already in Syria to probe previous allegations of chemical weapons strikes to the sites of the alleged attacks.
The head of the UN inspection mission, Aake Sellstroem, was in talks with Damascus “on all issues pertaining to the alleged use of chemical weapons, including this most recent reported incident,” a UN statement said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest demanded the inspectors be given “immediate access to witnesses and affected individuals” and “the ability to examine and collect physical evidence without any interference or manipulation from the Syrian government.”
Washington has previously described chemical weapons use as a red line that might prompt it to intervene militarily in Syria.
The Wall Street Journal reported a senior administration official as saying the claims of a chemical weapons attack appeared to have some credibility.
“There are strong indications there was a chemical weapons attack — clearly by the government,” the unnamed official said.
“But we do need to do our due diligence and get all the facts and determine what steps need to be taken.”
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius urged a reaction “with force” if the massacre was confirmed.
“If it is proven, France’s position is that there must be a reaction, a reaction that could take the form of a reaction with force,” Fabius told BFM-TV.
Human rights groups backed calls for access for the UN inspectors to the sites of the alleged attacks.
Should the allegations be true, “the attacks would amount to war crimes,” said Amnesty International’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, who urged the UN inspectors to visit the site.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said that the descriptions its staff heard from witnesses are “consistent with the use of chemical nerve agents.”
“A huge number of people in Ghouta (towns east of Damascus) are dead, doctors and witnesses are describing horrific details that look like a chemical weapons attack and the government claims it didn’t do it,” said Joe Stork, HRW’s acting Middle East director.
“The only way to find out what really happened in Ghouta is to let UN inspectors in,” Stork added.
The UN inspectors arrived in Damascus on Sunday with a strict mandate to investigate three sites for the alleged use of chemical weapons.
They are Khan al-Assal in the northern province of Aleppo, where rebels and the army blamed each other for using chemical weapons in March, as well as Ataybeh near Damascus and Homs in central Syria.
A high-ranking Syrian security source described the idea that the army would use chemical weapons while UN weapons inspectors were working inside the country as “political suicide”.
Wednesday “was the first day of the UN mission’s work and using chemical weapons at this time would have been political suicide”, the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“All analysts say that it is not in our current interest to use chemical weapons while the commission is on the ground,” he added.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses names and videos to document killings in the Syrian war, said the toll was likely much lower than the opposition’s figure of 1,300.
The Britain-based watchdog said it has documented the names of 109 fatalities, among them 30 women and 14 children, east of Damascus, and 61 others in Moadamiyet al-Sham, southwest of the capital, including 11 children and four women.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria’s 29-month war, the UN says. Millions more have been forced to flee their homes.