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Syrian Regime Denies Using Poisonous Gas in Deadly Attack Outside Damascus

August 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The Syrian government pounded rebel areas outside the capital, Damascus, early today, and anti-government activists said some rockets included chemical weapons that killed hundreds of people.

A warning: There are disturbing images in this report.

Women and children shielded their faces with handkerchiefs, while victims, writhing in pain, gasped for air, some foaming at the mouth. These amateur videos all posted on social media Web sites that cannot be independently verified showed scores of bodies filling clinic floors and hallways. All showed little signs of visible injuries.

In one local doctor’s account:

MAN (through interpreter): It is a huge crisis. The number of victims is very high. I have carried in my own hands around 50 dead children. The gas was losing its effect after half-an-hour, but unfortunately people went down to the basements, and because the gas is heavy, it reached the basements, and, as a result, the number of wounded increased.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s all evidence, Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey say, of the government’s gassing of its own civilians, in what could be one of the deadliest incidents in the two-year-long Syrian conflict.

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KHALED SALEH, Syrian National Coalition: These are the faces of terrorists that Bashar al-Assad is targeting. This massacre puts the world on attention. It really sends a message to all of the international organizations to the — the number of crimes this regime is willing to commit.

RAY SUAREZ: But, back in Damascus, a military spokesman denied the allegations.

MAN (through interpreter): The media channels have lied, as usual, that the Syrian Arab army used chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus today. The general leadership of the army confirms these allegations are completely false and are a part of the dirty media war that is led by some countries against Syria.

RAY SUAREZ: The purported attack comes amid reports that Assad forces have regained major swathes of territory in the country in recent weeks and just days after a 20-member United Nations inspection team arrived in Syria to investigate three other possible chemical weapon incidents.

In Washington, the Obama administration expressed alarm at news of the attack, but White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest stopped short of confirming details, instead calling for a U.N.-backed investigation.

JOSH EARNEST, White House Deputy Press Secretary: There is an investigation team that is on the ground in Syria right. And we are hopeful that the Assad regime will follow through on what they have claimed previously and give the investigators access to the sites, the opportunity to interview witnesses, the opportunity to collect physical samples, and other things that would help them reach a credible determination about what exactly occurred there.

RAY SUAREZ: World leaders, including the foreign ministers of Britain and Germany and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, expressed shock at the chemical weapons allegations and called for a thorough investigation, as did Russia, which has protected the Assad regime by vetoing U.N. sanctions aimed at ending the violence.

In a statement, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman suggested the incident could be a provocation by the opposition, saying: “This is supported by the fact that the criminal act was committed near Damascus at the very moment when a mission of U.N. experts had successfully started their work of investigating allegations of the possible use of chemical weapons there.”

The U.N. Security Council did meet in emergency session late today to discuss the day’s events, all this as thousands of Syrians continue to stream over the borders everyday to neighboring countries Iraq and Jordan, trying to escape the ongoing violence.