Hundreds of people, many of them children, have been killed on Wednesday in Syria after a suspected chemical attack launched by President Bashar al-Assad's regime, opposition forces have reported, but the government has denied the reports.
"Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims," said Bayan Baker, a nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, according to Reuters. Medical centers in Damascus say that at least 213 people have been killed, though anti-government activists say that number is much higher.
Media images showed scores of bodies, many of young children, laid out on the floors of clinics with no visible signs of injuries, raising the suspicion that poison gas might have been used on the people.
Al-Assad's government denied the accusations, however, and said that the rebels are trying to create a distraction.
"They are an attempt to divert the United Nations commission on chemical weapons from carrying out its mission," the state-run SANA news agency said. The UN team arrived three days ago and is investigating previous reports that such weapons might have been used in the 2-year conflict, which has already taken over 100,000 lives and forced millions to flee the country.
According to the activists, government forces launched rockets with chemical agents against the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar on Wednesday morning. BBC News noted that the main opposition alliance claimed that over 650 people were killed in the attacks.
With the crisis situation in Syria, independent sources have been unable to confirm the exact death toll, or whether chemical weapons have indeed been used.
Some analysts, however, have questioned the logic behind the government launching a large chemical attack at the exact time when UN inspectors are probing chemical weapon claims.
"It would be very peculiar if it was the government to do this at the exact moment the international inspectors come into the country," said Rolf Ekeus, a former UN weapons inspector who headed a team in Iraq in the 1990s.
"At the least, it wouldn't be very clever."
Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, added: "While it is clearly impossible to confirm the chemical weapons claim, it is clear from videos uploaded by reliable accounts that a large number of people have died."
A number of international bodies have called on the UN to investigate closely the claims of chemical weapons use, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague urging Damascus to give inspectors access to the site.
"I am deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of people, including children, have been killed in airstrikes and a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas near Damascus," Hague said in a statement.