Syrian Regime Launches Military Offensive After Chemical Weapons Reports

France advocates for use of force in Syria; U.N. 'shocked.'

UN team in Syria
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Syrian forces have launched an all-out assault on rebel-held areas around Damascus, aligning with activists' claims that Wednesday's unconfirmed chemical attacks were a precursor to a larger offensive.

[PHOTOS: Children Hit by Alleged Gas Attack Near Damascus]

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad conducted air attacks and bombed Ghouta, an eastern suburb of the capital city on Thursday. Hundreds of civilians have died as a result of what activist groups such as the Syrian Support Group call a massive chemical attack of undiluted Sarin gas early Wednesday.

It remains unclear how many casualties have resulted from the most recent attacks, though images of apparent corpses wrapped in white cloth were splashed across media outlets Thursday. Wednesday's reports indicate as many as 1,000 or more may have died from chemical weapons exposure.

The Syrian government has vehemently denied the chemical attacks, pointing instead to what it says is evidence that the rebels employed the weapons and are trying to frame the administration.

U.N. weapons inspectors arrived in Damascus on Sunday to investigate previous allegations of chemical weapons use in March and April. The administration had previously blocked their entry, but now points to cooperation with the team as a sign that they would not use chemical weapons.

"Syria has clear-cut evidence on the use of chemical weapons by the armed terrorist groups through eyewitnesses and soil and air samples," reports the Syrian state news service, based on information from an interview with Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi.

The United Nations, the Arab League and the European Union have expressed what they call grave concern over the attack allegations.

[READ: Syrian Forces Launch Chemical Weapons Attack, Activists Say]

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he was shocked by the reports and called on the Syrian government to allow the inspection team to investigate what has subsequently become a crime scene. Britain, France and the U.S. have echoed those calls.

The 15 members of the U.N. Security Council held a closed-door meeting late Wednesday to discuss the situation in Syria. The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee called on the council to take direct action if weapons inspectors are able to confirm the attacks.

"If the reports are validated, the United Nations Security Council must condemn the attack in the strongest possible terms and take immediate actions, to include the imposition of sanctions, to prevent further atrocities by the Assad regime," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

The French government went as a far as to advocate for the use of force if the claims are proven true.

"There would have to be reaction with force in Syria from the international community," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, reports the New York Times, adding "there is no question of sending troops on the ground."

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Corrected 8/22/2013: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of the French foreign minister.