The Syrian regime targeted roughly 1,500 Syrian citizens in a coordinated chemical weapons attack outside Damascus early Wednesday morning, activists say, in preparation for what could be a large scale ground assault on rebel-controlled areas.
Unconfirmed sources on the ground say forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fired Grad rockets bearing undiluted Sarin gas at suburban neighborhoods in the Ghouta area outside the capital city. Estimates indicate as many as 1,000 or more may have died by Wednesday morning, reports activist organization Syrian Support Group. More than half of the victims are women and children.
The rockets were fired from regime strongholds in two locations: a telecommunications factory in Qabun and an area called the Baghdad Bridge on the Damscus-Homs highway, says Dan Layman, a spokesman for SSG, which raises funds for the rebel movement with a rare license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
The alleged attacks come days after a U.N. investigative team arrived in Syria to investigate the source of confirmed chemical attacks in March and April. Their previous attempts to enter the country had been blocked by Assad.
The Syrian government wholly denies any involvement in the attacks, pointing to what it says is rebel discontent over the Assad regime's cooperation with the U.N. inspectors.
"Syria has repeatedly announced that it will never use any weapons of mass destruction against its own people, if such weapons exist," said a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign and Expatriates Ministry, according to the state-run news service. "The allegations constitute an attempt to prevent the international investigation committee from carrying out its task and to influence the committee's report."
Doctors on the ground say this is a "real, proper chemical attack," says Layman, pointing to the use of undiluted Sarin gas, producing a much more lethal effect than previous attacks. Medics in the area were already short on atropine, an antidote for Sarin, but the severity of this attack has killed many of the victims before they could receive medical attention.
SSG says the attacks appear to be an initial strike in preparation for a larger ground assault. Its sources have seen tanks and armored vehicles along with thousands of Syrian army soldiers moving toward the Damascus suburbs, with fighter jets bombing the area.
U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon said the investigative team, which arrived in Damascus on Sunday, should be given access to witnesses, victims, medical personnel and post-mortem examinations.
"If confirmed, the use of chemical weapons by any side under any circumstances must be held accountable and would constitute an international crime," he said in a written statement on Monday. "Anyone responsible must be held accountable."
The team will spend a total of 14 days in Syria with a possibility for extension.