A woman mourns over one of the shroud-wrapped bodies in the eastern Ghouta… (Shaam News Network / AFP/Getty…)
BEIRUT — In what the opposition called the worst atrocity of Syria's civil war, antigovernment activists accused the government of killing hundreds of civilians, including many women and children, in a poison-gas attack targeting pro-rebel Damascus suburbs.
The Syrian government called reports of a massacre untrue, but the scale of the alleged carnage and the graphic videos of the dead and injured that surfaced Wednesday left many officials across the globe demanding action.
If verified, such a massive gas attack could alter the international response to the war that has raged since March 2011. Last year, President Obama called the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria a "red line" that could prompt U.S. intervention.
The U.S. has provided humanitarian and nonlethal aid to the rebels but has been reluctant to get more deeply involved. Despite a declaration in June that it would start providing military assistance, rebels say they have yet to receive any such aid, nor have they been told what to expect or when they will get it.
The opposition said rockets tipped with some kind of apparent nerve agent rained down overnight on areas to the east and south of the Syrian capital, all strongholds of rebels fighting to overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad.
Video uploaded onto YouTube showed rows of bodies, some arrayed on the floors of makeshift clinics. Many were children in underwear and pajamas, purported victims of a barrage that allegedly occurred about 3 a.m. Other footage showed people choking, flailing their arms uncontrollably, rolling their eyes, foaming at the mouth and exhibiting other signs of what could be the effects of chemical poisoning. Most showed no indication of wounds or bleeding.
In one clip, a distraught man cradled what was described as the corpse of his daughter, asking why it had happened.
Each side in the conflict has accused the other of using chemical weapons, and both sides deny the charges. The U.S. and its allies have said that evidence indicates the Syrian military has used small amounts of sarin, a nerve agent, on several occasions.
Experts who had been skeptical of previous claims said the new images showed more convincing signs of a chemical attack. But they raised a number of questions that could not immediately be answered. Some suggested the pictures suggested use of a low-grade agent.
The United States and other nations urged that a United Nations team that arrived in Damascus over the weekend to investigate previous charges of chemical weapons use be ordered to look into this incident as well.
The U.N. Security Council convened a two-hour emergency session. But afterward, the U.N., which long has been deeply divided on Syria, issued a statement condemning any use of chemical weapons as a "violation of international law," calling for a "thorough and prompt investigation" and renewing calls for a cease-fire in Syria.
The major U.S.-backed Syrian opposition group said more than 1,300 people were killed, while other antigovernment groups put the number in the hundreds. Such numbers would seem to represent the largest single-day death toll in a conflict that the U.N. says has already cost more than 100,000 lives.
One activist who lives near the town of Arbeen said rockets began hitting the area about 2:30 a.m. Residents who had been sleeping in their basements to protect themselves from shelling could not escape the chemicals, he said.
Another, reached by Skype in Zamalka, said he was awake when the first rocket hit his area. He and his friends, who are part of a volunteer ambulance team, rushed to the scene. Families stumbled out of their homes and into the street, still dressed in their pajamas, choking and out of breath, he said.
By early morning, drugs at three makeshift hospitals had run out, and victims were being treated with water, he said, adding that medical personnel were attempting to wash out people's eyes and mouths with soda.
"These reports are uncorroborated and we are urgently seeking more information," British Foreign Minister William Hague said in a statement in London. "But it is clear that if they are verified, it would mark a shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria."
The official Syrian news agency called the reports untrue and designed to derail the ongoing U.N. inquiry.
A Syrian military official appeared on state television denouncing the reports as a desperate opposition attempt to make up for rebel defeats on the ground. After months in which rebels were making steady gains against the government, pro-Assad forces have held the momentum for much of this year, regaining territory around Damascus and in several other parts of the country.