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FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, file citizen journalism image provided by the Media Office Of Douma City, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a Syrian man mourns over a dead body after an alleged poisonous gas attack fired by regime forces, according to activists, in Douma town, Damascus, Syria. Humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders said Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, some 355 people showing "neurotoxic symptoms" died after a suspected chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs earlier this week. The group says three hospitals it supports had reported receiving about 3,600 patients with such symptoms in less than three hours that day. (AP Photo/Media Office Of Douma City, File)
Aid group: 355 dead after Syria ‘chemical’ attack
First Published Aug 24 2013 11:48 am • Last Updated Aug 24 2013 12:10 pm

Damascus, Syria • Syrian state media accused rebels of using chemical arms against government troops in clashes Saturday near Damascus, while an international aid group said it has tallied 355 deaths from a purported chemical weapons attack earlier this week.

Doctors Without Borders said three hospitals it supports in the eastern Damascus region reported receiving roughly 3,600 patients with "neurotoxic symptoms" over less than three hours on Wednesday morning, when the attack in the eastern Ghouta area took place.

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Of those, 355 died, said the Paris-based group.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Saturday that its estimated death toll from the alleged chemical attack reached 322, including 54 children, 82 women and dozens of fighters. It said the dead included 16 who have not been identified.

The Observatory’s earlier death toll was 136, saying it was raised after its activists in the stricken areas met doctors, residents and saw medical reports. It said the dead "fell in the massacre committed by the Syrian regime."

Death tolls have varied over the alleged attack, with Syrian anti-government activists reporting between 322 and 1,300 being killed.

Meanwhile, U.S. naval forces are moving closer to Syria as President Barack Obama considers a military response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad’s government.

U.S. defense officials told The Associated Press that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss ship movements publicly.

Obama emphasized that a quick intervention in the Syrian civil war was problematic, given the international considerations that should precede a military strike. The White House said the president would meet Saturday with his national security team to consider possible next steps by the United States. Officials say once the facts are clear, Obama will make a decision about how to proceed.

With the pressure increasing, Syria’s state media accused rebels in the contested district of Jobar near Damascus of using chemical weapons against government troops Saturday.


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State TV broadcast images of plastic jugs, gas masks, vials of an unspecified medication, explosives and other items that it said were seized from rebel hideouts Saturday. It did not, however, show any video of soldiers reportedly affected by toxic gas in the fighting.

The claims could muddy the debate about who was responsible for Wednesday’s alleged gas attack, which spurred demands for an independent investigation and renewed talk of potential international military action if chemical weapons were used.

Just hours before the state media reports, the U.N. disarmament chief arrived in Damascus to press Assad’s regime to allow U.N. experts to investigate the alleged attack. The regime has denied allegations that it was behind the Wednesday attack, calling them "absolutely baseless" and suggesting they are an attempt to discredit the government.

The U.S., Britain, France and Russia have urged the Assad regime and the rebels fighting to overthrow him to cooperate with the United Nations and allow a team of experts already in Syria to look into the latest purported use of chemical agents. The U.N. secretary-general dispatched Angela Kane, the high representative for disarmament affairs, to push for a speedy investigation into Wednesday’s purported attack. She did not speak to reporters upon her arrival in Damascus Saturday.

The state news agency said several government troops who took part in the Jobar offensive experienced severe trouble breathing or even "suffocation" after "armed terrorist groups used chemical weapons." It was not clear what was meant by "suffocation," and the report mentioned no fatalities among the troops.

"The Syrian Army achieved major progress in the past days and for that reason, the terrorist groups used chemical weapons as their last card," state TV said. The government refers to rebels fighting to topple Assad as "terrorists."

The report was followed by an unusual string of breaking alerts on the TV’s news scroll Saturday, with a series of claims related to the alleged use of chemical arms by rebels in Jobar.

One message cited a Syrian TV journalist embedded with the troops in the district who said the army confiscated an arms cache that included several barrels with "made in Saudi Arabia" stamped on them. It did not say what was in the barrels, but appeared to suggest that some sort of chemical agent was inside and supplied by Saudi Arabia, the region’s Sunni Muslim power and a staunch supporter of Syria’s Sunni-led revolt.

Another news scroll said that troops, after overrunning rebel positions, received antidotes following exposure to chemical agents. The TV said the medicines were produced by a Qatari-German medical supplies company. Qatar is another strong supporter of the Syrian rebels. The report could not be immediately verified.

State TV also broadcast images of a Syrian army officer, wearing a surgical mask, telling reporters wearing similar masks that soldiers were subjected to poisonous attack in Jobar. He spoke inside the depot where the alleged confiscated products were placed.

"Our troops did not suffer body wounds," said the officer said. "I believe terrorist groups used special substances that are poisonous in an attempt to affect this advance."

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