Syrian activists close to the country’s opposition claimed hundreds of people were killed in a devastating “poison gas” attack by regime forces outside Damascus Wednesday.
The attack came as UN chemical weapons inspectors were beginning a probe of chemical weapon use in sites around Syria.
There were several differing reports on a death toll. A Free Syrian Army source told Al Arabiya the death toll stood at 1,188, while the Local Coordination Committees said some 785 people were killed. A nurse at an emergency clinic in Douma told Reuters the death toll was at 213, and the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 40 were confirmed dead and the death toll could reach over 200.
Groups quoted activists as saying that regime forces fired “rockets with poisonous gas heads” in the attack.
The Syrian Observatory said the shelling was intense and hit the eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma. Activists told Reuters that Jobar was also targeted. The areas are largely held by rebel forces.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the Syrian Observatory chief, said the activists in the area said “poisonous gas” was fired in rockets as well as from the air. He added that regime forces were on a wide offensive on the eastern and western rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.
Mohammed Saeed, an activist in the area, told The Associated Press via Skype that hundreds of dead and injured people were rushed to six makeshift hospitals in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
“This is a massacre by chemical weapons,” said Saeed. “The visit by the UN team is a joke … Bashar is using the weapons and telling the world that he does not care.”
The use of a chemical agent could not be immediately verified. The government denied it had used chemical weapons, according to a report in the state-run SANA news agency.
In the hours after the attack dozens of videos were posted to YouTube showing reported victims of the attack, including children. Some videos showed dozens of bodies while others showed doctors and others struggling to treat people having seizures. The veracity of the videos could not be immediately verified.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “deeply concerned” by the reports.
The Syrian Observatory called upon the UN team in Syria and all international organizations “to visit the stricken areas and to guarantee that medical and relief supplies reach the people as soon as possible.” It also called for an investigation into the attack.