DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria's deputy prime minister told The Associated Press that foreign fighters and their international backers are to blame for a purported chemical weapons attack near Damascus that the opposition says killed at least 100 people, the deadliest such attack in Syria's civil war.
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 about the conflict — 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 by anti-government activists 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 carnage of Syria's 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 any wounds as evidence that it was 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.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added his voice to the calls on Thursday, urging the Syrian government to allow the U.N. team now in Damascus to swiftly investigate the alleged use of chemical weapons outside the capital.
President Barack Obama has called chemical weapons a "red line" for potential military action, and in June, the U.S. said it had conclusive evidence that Assad's regime had used chemical weapons against opposition forces. But it has so far shown no inclination to intervene.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday the administration was unable to conclusively determine the use of chemical weapons but added "we are focused every minute of every day since these events happened yesterday on doing everything possible within our power to nail down the facts."
Syria is said to have one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin, but the government has never confirmed that.
Jamil said he was personally in favor of a fair, transparent international delegation to investigate the incident in Ghouta. But he said this requires a new agreement between the government and the U.N. and that the conditions for such a delegation would need to be studied.
"We don't want to be like Iraq, opening our territory up to all sorts of investigators, going through our homes and bedrooms. Syria is a sovereign nation and will preserve its sovereignty," he told the AP in an interview at the prime minister's offices in the Damascus district of Kfar Sousseh.
Denying that it carried out the attack, the regime has turned blame around to boost its narrative about the conflict — that Syria is under assault by foreign Islamic radicals, an argument that has powerful resonance with the Syrian public as the presence of militants fighting alongside Syria's rebels increases.
Jamil said foreign militants carried out the attack with the backing of Israel and supporters in the West in a bid to thwart efforts to hold an international peace conference to end the Syrian bloodshed.