Government forces, meanwhile, pummeled the targeted rebel strongholds where the alleged attack occurred with airstrikes and artillery for a second day, violence that was likely to complicate any swift investigation into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths.
Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil’s comments were part of a government campaign to use the horror over the deaths to boost its narrative – that Syria is under assault by foreign Islamic radicals. It is an argument that has powerful resonance with the Syrian public as the presence of militants fighting alongside Syria’s rebels increases.
Rebels blamed the attack on the Syrian military, saying toxic chemicals were used in artillery barrages on the area known as eastern Ghouta on Wednesday. Jamil did not directly acknowledge that toxic gas was used against the eastern suburbs but denied allegations that President Bashar Assad’s forces were behind the assault.
The murky nature of the purported attacks, and the difficulty of gaining access to the sites amid the war and government restrictions on foreign media, has made it impossible to verify the claims. But they have fueled calls in the West for greater action against Assad’s regime as amateur videos and photos showed images of the dead, including scores of lifeless children wrapped in white cloths and lying shoulder to shoulder, while others struggled to breathe. Many pointed to the fact that their pale skin was unmarked by wounds as evidence of a chemical attack.
The U.S., Britain and France, along with a host of other countries, demanded that a team of United Nations experts already in Syria be granted immediate access to the site. The timing of Wednesday’s attack – four days after the U.N. team’s arrival – has also raised questions about why the regime would use chemical agents now.