By BASSEM MROUE
BEIRUT (AP) – Syrian regime forces fired intense artillery and rocket barrages Wednesday on the eastern suburbs Damascus amid a fierce government offensive in what two pro-opposition groups claimed was a “poisonous gas” attack that killed dozens of people.
The claims came as a 20-member U.N. chemical weapons team was in Syria to investigate three sites where chemical weapons attacks had allegedly occurred in the past. The timing raises questions on why would the regime employ chemical agents during a visit by the U.N. experts.
The government promptly denied the reports of Wednesday’s chemical weapons’ attack as “absolutely baseless.”
“They are an attempt to divert the U.N. commission on chemical weapons from carrying out its mission,” the state-run SANA news agency said, quoting an unnamed government official, as is its standard practice.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shelling was intense and hit the capital’s eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma. The intensive bombardment as well as the sound of fighter jets could be heard by residents of the Syrian capital throughout the night and early Wednesday, and gray smoke hung over towns in the eastern suburbs.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the Observatory chief, said the activists in the area said “poisonous gas” was fired in rockets as well as from the air in the attack that killed “dozens of people.” He added that regime forces were on a wide offensive on the eastern and western rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.
Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said hundreds of people were killed or injured in the shelling. Such different figures from activists groups are common in the immediate aftermaths of attacks in Syria, where the government restricts foreign and domestic reporting.
Abdul-Rahman said more than 40 people have been confirmed dead and that the death toll could reach as many as 200 in the suburbs of Damascus.
The Syrian government has long denied claims by the opposition on chemical weapons use, saying rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad’s government have used such weapons.
Following Wednesday’s reports, the Observatory called upon the U.N. 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.
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 U.N. team is a joke … Bashar is using the weapons and telling the world that he does not care.”
An activist group in the town of Arbeen east of Damascus posted on its Facebook page pictures purporting to show rows of Syrian children, wrapped in white death shrouds, and others, with chests bared. There appeared to be very little signs of blood or physical wounds on the bodies.
The photos distributed by activists to support their claims were consistent with AP reporting of shelling in the area, though it was not known if the victims died from a poisonous gas attack.
The U.N team, led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, is meant to probe three sites: the village of Khan al-Assal just west of the embattled northern city of Aleppo and two other locations, which are being kept secret for security reasons.
Wednesday’s claim of the chemical attack, if confirmed, would be the most serious since the March 19 incident in Khan al-Assal when at least 30 people were killed. Assad’s regime and the rebels have blamed each other for that attack.
Unrest in Syria began in March 2011 and later exploded into a civil war. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
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