Syrian forces bombard Damascus suburbs after rebels say gas attack kills hundreds

Syrian forces bombard Damascus suburbs after rebels say gas attack kills hundreds

BEIRUT/AMMAN - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces bombarded rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Thursday, activists said, keeping up pressure on the besieged region a day after the opposition accused the army of gassing hundreds in a chemical weapons attack.

With Wednesday's death toll estimated between 500 and 1,300, what would be the world's most lethal chemical weapons attack since the 1980s prompted an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in New York.

Opposition activists said men, women and children were killed as they slept.

The council did not explicitly demand a UN investigation of the incident, although it said "clarity" was needed and welcomed UN chief Ban Ki-moon's calls for a prompt investigation by the UN inspection team in Syria, led by Ake Sellstrom.

An earlier Western-drafted statement submitted to the council, seen by Reuters, was not approved. The final version of the statement was watered down to accommodate objections from Russia and China, diplomats said. Moscow and Beijing have vetoed previous Western efforts to impose UN penalties on Assad.

The Syrian opposition said President Bashar al-Assad's forces fired rockets that released deadly fumes over rebel-held eastern Damascus suburbs, which are part of what is known as the Ghouta. The area is an expanse of old farmland dotted with large built up areas inhabited mostly by members of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority that have been at the forefront of the uprising against Assad's Alawite rule.

Assad's Shi'ite backer Iran said the Syrian government could not have been behind the possible chemical weapon attack as Assad had the upper hand in the fighting.

A report by the opposition al-Sham Research Centre said the use of chemical weapons on a scale unseen since their use was first reported last year is "a message" from Assad to Turkey and the Arab Sunni backers of the revolt.

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