Chemical materials and gas masks in a warehouse at the front line of clashes between opposition fighters and government forces, during a guided tour by the Syrian Army in the Damascus suburb of Jobar, yesterday.
DAMASCUS: The Syrian government and its foes accused each other yesterday of using chemical weapons, as Doctors Without Borders said 355 people had died earlier this week of “neurotoxic” symptoms.
Meanwhile, a senior UN envoy was in Damascus to press for an investigation into the alleged chemical attack on Wednesday, as US President Barack Obama met his top national security advisers to weigh a possible response.
Obama is under mounting pressure to act following the reported attack near Damascus that opposition groups say was carried out by President Bashar Al Assad’s forces and had killed more than 1,000 people.
The Syrian government has strongly denied the allegations but has yet to accede to demands that UN inspectors already in the country be allowed to visit the sites of the alleged attacks.
However, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was quoted by his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, as saying Damascus would facilitate such a visit.
“The Syrian government will cooperate with the United Nations mission now in Syria to create the conditions for a visit to zones where terrorist groups have carried out attacks with chemical weapons,” he was quoted as saying.
“We are currently in the process of discussions with the United Nations mission on preparing this visit.”
Syrian state television said soldiers found chemical weapons yesterday in tunnels that had been used by rebels, deflecting blame for a nerve gas attack that killed hundreds this week and heightened Western calls for foreign intervention.
In an attempt to strengthen government denials, state news agency SANA said soldiers “suffered from cases of suffocation” when rebels used chemical weapons against them in the Damascus suburb of Jobar.
It said clashes were still raging in the area but that the army had advanced and found “chemical agents” in rebel tunnels.
State television said rebels used poison gas “as a last resort” after government forces made “big gains” in Jobar.
But footage did not appear to show evidence of chemical weapons. It showed five blue and green plastic drums, normally used to transport oil, lined against a wall in a room, as well as several rusty mortar bombs and grenades.
Next to them were several rolls of tape, rope and some gas canisters, normally used for domestic ovens. Gas masks were seen near some vials labelled “atropine”.
The presenter said that these images were proof that the rebels had used chemical weapons but did not say which of the items contained them.
Activists say President Bashar Al Assad’s forces fired nerve gas projectiles into Jobar and other suburbs before dawn on Wednesday. Later in the week, activists crossed front lines around Damascus to smuggle out tissue samples from victims.
Leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition Ahmad Al Jarba and the head of the rebel Free Syrian Army General Salim Idriss denied that rebels had used chemical weapons.
At a press conference in Istanbul Idriss said the rebels would respond to the attack but would not commit “similar crimes”, referring to chemical weapons.
Jabra said the “most important cause” of the attack was the lack of action by the international community, the West in particular, and its silence.
With the two sides trading accusations, UN Under Secretary General Angela Kane was in Damascus, tasked by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with establishing the terms of an inquiry.
Ban is determined to “conduct a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation” into the chemical attack claims, his spokesman said.
UN experts have been on the ground in Syria since Sunday to probe three other sites.
Meanwhile, Information Minister Omran Al Zohbi said the regime has never used chemical weapons.
“We have never used chemical weapons in Syria, in any form whatsoever, be it liquid or gas,” he told a Beirut-based Arabic television channel.
In Washington, a White House official said: “The president has directed the intelligence community to gather facts and evidence so that we can determine what occurred in Syria.
“Once we ascertain the facts, the president will make an informed decision about how to respond.”
The violence continued yesterday, with a watchdog accusing the regime of striking by air several rebel positions, including in Jobar, and reporting that insurgents seized a strategic town in the northwest.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, during a visit to the West Bank yesterday, blamed Syria for a “chemical massacre” and said “the Bashar regime is responsible.”
But Damascus ally Iran blamed the rebels and warned the West against any military intervention.
“There is proof terrorist groups carried out this action,” foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi said, without giving any details. Warning against any Western military intervention in the conflict, Araqchi said “there is no international authorisation for” such action.