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A rocket attack in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus Wednesday morning left scores dead and raised new fears that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is using chemical weapons against opposition forces.
Just three days after a United Nations team arrived in Syria to investigate alleged chemical weapons use in the county’s grinding two-year civil war, opposition groups say the government made use of an unknown “poison gas” in Wednesday’s attack on the Ghouta area of eastern Damascus, with some claiming that casualties numbered several hundred, reports the BBC.
Unconfirmed videos purportedly taken from the site of the attacks show hundreds of people lying dead or wounded in hospitals and on pavement, with their bodies bearing few signs of conventional injury. Some are foaming at the mouth. As The Guardian reported, field hospital personnel clearly “believed that they were dealing with a chemical or toxic attack.”
Those attending have stripped the injured down - seemingly in an effort to remove traces of any possible toxics from clothes. None of the injured or dead appear to have any visible injures. Many if not all of the injured are struggling to breathe or suffering from respiratory problems.
Some footage shows people wearing oxygen masks and others show scenes of people's hearts and chests being massaged or being hosed and washed. In a few cases people including children are filmed foaming at the mouth whilst those attending give mouth to mouth.
Mr. Assad’s regime admitted to carrying out the attack Wednesday, but said accusations of chemical weapons use were an opposition tactic designed to prejudice the UN investigation.
"The army will never use chemical gas on the Syrian people, if it does exist anyway," said a Syrian official speaking anonymously to CBS. “This is a media war but the way they think is really stupid…. Would you imagine that we would use chemical weapons where a UN team is here to inspect?"
The UN group arrived in Damascus Saturday to begin a limited probe into three earlier alleged uses of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, notably an alleged sarin gas attack in the Aleppo suburb of Khan al-Assal in March.
That attack drew a stark line through the international community. The United States, France, Britain, and Israel accused the government of unleashing the deadly chemical on rebel fighters, while Russia alleged that it was the opposition who used the infamous nerve gas.
The UN probe will investigate the attack at Khan al-Assal, but with a rigidly circumscribed scope. It can only assess whether chemical weapons were used, not assign responsibility for their deployment, reports Al Jazeera.
“The investigation has such a limited mandate,” said reporter Nisreen El-Shamayleh. “However, UN says that any investigation to the alleged use of chemical weapons inside Syria would serve as a deterrent in the future for either side, rebels or government, to use these weapons again.”
Eastern Ghouta, where the rocket attacks took place Wednesday, has long been seen by both the Assad regime and rebel forces as a crucial gateway to the capital Damascus, The Guardian reports.
Activists have accused the government of refusing to allow aid convoys into the area, which hosts enclaves from several of the main opposition groups, and 15 civilians were killed during shelling of the area in April, reports Al Jazeera.
Whether the UN team will investigate this latest attack as part of its investigation has not yet been determined, according to the BBC.
The head of the inspection mission, Ake Sellstrom, said he had seen TV footage of the latest attack but nothing more.
"It sounds like something that should be looked into," Mr Sellstrom told the Swedish TT news agency.
Mr Sellstrom said that whether his team went to the scene would depend on whether any UN member state went to the UN Secretary General and asked them to.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that it was business as usual for the Assad propaganda machine Wednesday, as “Syrian state television continued with its normal morning programming, interviewing vendors at an outdoor market and hosting a talk show about astrology. A red banner flashed briefly at the bottom of the screen, saying there was “no truth whatsoever” to reports about the use of chemical weapons."
Several foreign governments, however, quickly condemned the attack, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague saying it potentially marked “a shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”
The Obama administration had previously called chemical weapons use a “red line” in the conflict that could prompt American military intervention, and as The Christian Science Monitor reported in June, many Americans see governmental use of chemical weapons – if confirmed – as a solid pretext for direct intervention.
An April Pew Research survey found plurality support (45 to 31 percent) for military action, "if it is confirmed that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against anti-government groups," the HuffPost writers note. Similarly, a CNN/ORC survey in May found 68 percent thought military action justified "if the United States were able to present evidence that convinced you that the Syrian government has chemical weapons and has used them to kill civilians in that country."