(Reuters) – Syrian activists accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of launching a gas attack that killed more than 200 people on Wednesday, in what would, if confirmed, be by far the worst reported use of chemical arms in the two-year-old civil war.
Images, including some taken by photographers working for Reuters, showed scores of bodies including of small children, laid out on the floor of a medical clinic with no visible signs of injuries. Reuters was not independently able to verify the cause of their death.
Syrian state television denied government forces had used poison gas and said the accusations were intended to distract a team of United Nations chemical weapons experts which arrived three days ago.
Activists said rockets with chemical agents hit the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar during fierce pre-dawn bombardment by government forces.
A nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, said the death toll, as collated from medical centers in the suburbs east of Damascus, was at least 213. Activists said many hundreds had been killed.
“Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims,” the nurse said.
The U.N. team is in Syria investigating allegations that both rebels and army forces used chemical weapons in the past, one of the main disputes in international diplomacy over Syria.
The Swedish scientist leading the team, Ake Sellstrom, said the reports should be looked into, but doing so would require a request from a U.N. member state.
Britain said it was deeply concerned and would raise the issue at the U.N. Security Council, adding the attacks would be “a shocking escalation” if confirmed.
Extensive amateur video and photographs appeared on the Internet. A video purportedly shot in the Kafr Batna neighborhood showed a room filled with more than 90 bodies, many of them children and a few women and elderly men. Most of the bodies appeared ashen or pale but with no visible injuries. About a dozen were wrapped in blankets.
Other footage showed doctors treating people in makeshift clinics. One video showed the bodies of a dozen people lying on the floor of a clinic, with no visible wounds. The narrator in the video said they were all members of a single family. In a corridor outside lay another five bodies.
The head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition said Assad’s forces had carried out a massacre: “This is a chance for the (U.N. inspectors) to see with their own eyes this massacre and know that this regime is a criminal one,” Ahmed Jarba said.
Syrian state television quoted an Information Ministry source as saying there was “no truth whatsoever” to the reports.
Syria is one of just a handful of countries that are not parties to the international treaty that bans chemical weapons, and Western nations believe it has caches of undeclared mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agents.
Assad’s officials have said they would never use poison gas – if they had it – against Syrians. The United States and European allies believe Assad’s forces used small amounts of sarin gas in attacks in the past, which Washington called a “red line” that justified international military aid for the rebels.
Assad’s government has responded in the past with accusations that it was the rebels that used chemical weapons, which the rebels deny. Western countries say they do not believe the rebels have access to poison gas. Assad’s main global ally Moscow says accusations on both sides must be investigated.
Khaled Omar of the opposition Local Council in Ain Tarma said he saw at least 80 bodies at the Hajjah Hospital in Ain Tarma and at a makeshift clinic at Tatbiqiya School in the nearby district of Saqba.
“The attack took place at around 3:00 a.m. (8:00 p.m. EDT). Most of those killed were in their homes,” Omar said.
An activist working with Ahrar al-Sham rebel unit in the Erbin district east of the capital who used the name Abu Nidal said many of those who died were rescuers who were overcome with poison when they arrived at the scene.
“We believe there was a group of initial responders who died or were wounded, because when we went in later, we saw men collapsed on staircases or inside doorways and it looks like they were trying to go in to help the wounded and then were hurt themselves,” he told Reuters by Skype.
“At first none of us knew there were chemical agents because it seemed like just another night of air strikes and no one was anticipating chemical weapons use, especially with U.N. monitors in town.”
The timing and location of the reported chemical weapons use – just three days after the team of U.N. chemical experts checked in to a Damascus hotel a few km (miles) to the east at the start of their mission – was surprising.
“It would be very peculiar if it was the government to do this at the exact moment the international inspectors come into the country,” said Rolf Ekeus, a retired Swedish diplomat who headed a team of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq in the 1990s.
“At the least, it wouldn’t be very clever.”
Ekeus said the mandate of the U.N. team was limited to three sites but could be amended to investigate fresh claims – which would be simpler to verify than the other months-old cases.
“It is easier to do sampling and testing, and also to look at the victims, if there are sick people or even dead people (on the scene). It is easier to get to doctors and get to the place where the event happened.”
Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, also said it made little sense for the Syrian government to use chemical agents now.
“Nonetheless, the Ghouta region (where the attacks were reported) is well known for its opposition leanings. Jabhat al-Nusra has had a long-time presence there and the region has borne the brunt of sustained military pressure for months now,” he said, referring to a hardline Sunni Islamist rebel group allied to al Qaeda.
“While it is clearly impossible to confirm the chemical weapons claim, it is clear from videos uploaded by reliable accounts that a large number of people have died.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said dozens of people were killed, including children, in fierce bombardment. It said Mouadamiya, southwest of the capital, came under the heaviest attack since the start of the two-year conflict.
The Observatory called on the U.N. experts and international organizations to visit the affected areas to ensure aid could be delivered and to “launch an investigation to determine who was responsible for the bombardment and hold them to account”.
(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Niklas Pollard in Stockholm; Editing by Peter Graff)