Syrian regime forces fired intense artillery and rocket barrages Wednesday on the eastern suburbs of Damascus amid a fierce government offensive in what two pro-opposition groups claimed was a "poisonous gas" attack that killed at least 100 people, including many children.
According to Arab media, doctors who tended to casualties noted that Assad's army was using the sarin gas.
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State television quoted a source as saying there was "no truth whatsover" to the reports regrding the attack, arguing the reports were aimed at distracting a visiting team of United Nations chemical weapons experts from their mission.
It coincides with a visit to Damascus by a United Nations team of chemical weapons experts.
Activists from the grassroots Local Coordination Committee reported at least 30 bodies had been brought to one field hospital in Kafr Batna neighborhood a few miles (km) east of central Damascus.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the shelling was intense and hit the capital's eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma. The intensive bombardment as well as the sound of fighter jets could be heard by residents of the Syrian capital throughout the night and early Wednesday, and gray smoke hung over towns in the eastern suburbs.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, the Observatory chief, said the activists in the area said "poisonous gas" was fired in rockets as well as from the air in the attack that killed "dozens of people." He added that regime forces were on a wide offensive on the eastern and western rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.
Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, said hundreds of people were killed or injured in the shelling. Such different figures from activists groups are common in the immediate aftermaths of attacks in Syria, where the government restricts foreign and domestic reporting.
Abdul-Rahman said more than 40 people have been confirmed dead and that the death toll could reach as many as 200 in the suburbs of Damascus.
The Syrian government has long denied claims by the opposition on chemical weapons use, saying rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad's government have used such weapons.
Following Wednesday's reports, the Observatory called upon the UN team in Syria and all international organizations "to visit the stricken areas and to guarantee that medical and relief supplies reach the people as soon as possible." It also called for an investigation into the attack.
Mohammed Saeed, an activist in the area, told The Associated Press via Skype that hundreds of dead and injured people were rushed to six makeshift hospitals in the eastern suburbs of Damascus.
"This is a massacre by chemical weapons," said Saeed. "The visit by the UN team is a joke ... Bashar is using the weapons and telling the world that he does not care."
An activist group in the town of Arbeen east of Damascus posted on its Facebook page pictures purporting to show rows of Syrian children, wrapped in white death shrouds, and others, with chests bared. There appeared to be very little signs of blood or physical wounds on the bodies.
The photos distributed by activists to support their claims were consistent with AP reporting of shelling in the area, though it was not known if the victims died from a poisonous gas attack.
Swedish UN chemical experts arriving in Syria (Photo: AFP)
The UN team, led by Swedish expert Ake Sellstrom, is meant to probe three sites: the village of Khan al-Assal just west of the embattled northern city of Aleppo and two other locations, which are being kept secret for security reasons.
Syrian authorities and rebels have accused each other of using chemical agents in the course of the civil war, in which 100,000 people have been killed.
Reuters contributed to this report
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