Security Council meets on alleged Syrian chemical attack

Syrian opposition claims government forces used chemical weapons in Damascus suburbs, killing hundreds of people. Photo: AFP
The UN Security Council met Wednesday over reports of a chemical weapons attack in Syria that the opposition says was carried out by the army and killed more than 1,300 people. 
The United Nations deputy secretary-general says any use of chemical weapons in Syria would represent a "serious escalation" in the fighting there and would have "grave human consequences."
Jan Eliasson made his comments Wednesday afternoon after an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting on Syria.
Eliasson said he hopes U.N. inspectors now in Syria will gain access to the sites near Damascus where the opposition has accused government forces of killing many civilians in chemical weapon attacks on Wednesday.
He said U.N. officials are in contact with Syria\’s government about gaining such access, and he noted that the situation is "very dramatic."
The Arab League and Western powers including the United States have called on Syria\’s government to allow U.N. inspectors in Damascus to immediately visit the sites of Wednesday\’s attacks. 
The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied using chemical weapons in its latest assault on rebel-held Damascus suburbs. It accused the opposition of trying to distract U.N. inspectors who arrived in Syria this week to investigate government claims that rebels used chemical weapons earlier this year. 
Rockets with toxic agents were launched at the suburbs of the Ghouta region early on Wednesday as part of a major bombardment on rebel forces, they say.
The Syrian army says the accusations have been fabricated to cover up rebel losses.
In a statement, the army described the accusations of chemical weapons use as grave, and stressed the military\’s right to fight what it described as terrorism in Syria.
It accused the opposition of fabricating the accusations to divert attention from the huge losses its forces had suffered recently.
It is also not clear how many died in the bombardment of the sites and how many deaths were due to any exposure to toxic substances.
Video footage showed dozens of bodies with no visible signs of injuries, including small children, laid out on the floor of a clinic.
Russia, a key Assad ally, accused the opposition of committing a "premeditated provocation" by making claims about mass casualties from a government chemical attack soon after the arrival of the U.N. inspectors. 
Syrian opposition reports of the death toll from Wednesday\’s attacks varied widely. Opposition leader George Sabra of the exiled Syrian National Coalition told a news conference in Istanbul the number of those killed is as high as 1,300. His claim could not be independently verified. 
The attack took place as part of a heavy government bombardment of the region surrounding Damascus, where government forces have been trying to drive out rebel forces.
Casualties were reported in the areas of Irbin, Duma and Muadhamiya among others, activists said.
Footage uploaded to YouTube from the scene by activists shows many people being treated in makeshift hospitals.
Syrian activists said government troops unleashed an artillery and rocket barrage against several Damascus suburbs, with some of the weapons allegedly containing chemical elements. They posted videos online showing scores of bodies of adults and children laid out on the floor of makeshift clinics with no visible signs of injuries. 
The White House said it is "deeply concerned" by the reports and called for those responsible for using chemical weapons to be held accountable. It said the Syrian government must grant the U.N. investigators "immediate access to witnesses and affected individuals" and allow them to "examine and collect physical evidence without any interference or manipulation."
The office of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he is "shocked" by the alleged Damascus chemical attacks. It said the U.N. inspection team led by Swedish scientist Ake Sellstrom is "in discussions" with the Syrian government about the day\’s incidents. 
Khaled Saleh, a spokesman for the main opposition Syrian National Coalition, strongly criticized the reported attacks, calling the situation in the area "extremely dire."
"This really is a slap in the face of humanity, in the face of the U.N., in the face of the Friends of Syria group. It\’s even a slap in the face of those regimes that support the Assad regime in killing the Syrian people. What we want is for those inspectors to come in and see the people that were killed in the country side of Damascus. We want them to look at the victims, we want them to investigate who used those chemical weapons."
The mandate of the U.N. inspection team is limited to establishing whether chemical weapons – including sarin and other toxic nerve agents – were used, not who used them. 
The Syrian government also has restricted the mission to investigating several specific incidents including a March attack in the Aleppo suburb of Khan al-Assal.
Syria is widely believed to possess large undeclared stockpiles of mustard gas and sarin nerve agent.
Syria has been embroiled in a war for more than two years, during which more than 100,000 people have been killed and millions have been displaced or become refugees in other countries, according to the United Nations.
Source: Agencies
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