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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.
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.
One barrel had "made in Saudi Arabia" stamped on it. The TV report also showed medicines said to be produced by a Qatari-German medical supplies company. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are strong supporters of the Syrian rebels. The report could not be immediately verified.
An army statement issued late Saturday said the discovery of the weapons "is clear evidence that these gangs are using chemical weapons against our people and soldiers with help from foreign sides."
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 Wednesday attack. The regime has denied allegations it was responsible, 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."
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," the officer said. "I believe terrorist groups used special substances that are poisonous in an attempt to affect this advance."
Al-Mayadeen aired interviews with two soldiers hospitalized for possible chemical weapons attack. The two appeared unharmed but were undergoing tests.
"We were advancing and heard an explosion that was not very strong," a soldier said from his bed. "Then there was a strange smell, my eyes and head ached and I struggled to breathe." The other soldier also said he experienced trouble breathing after the explosion.
Al-Mayadeen TV, which has a reporter embedded with the troops in the area, said some 50 soldiers were rushed to Damascus hospitals for treatment and that it was not yet known what type of gas the troops were subjected too.
In Turkey, top Syrian rebel commander Salim Idris told reporters that opposition forces did not use chemical weapons on Saturday and that "the regime is lying."
For days, the government has been trying to counter rebel allegations that the regime used chemical weapons on civilians in rebel-held areas of eastern Damascus, arguing that opposition fighters themselves were responsible for that attack.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius dismissed the Syrian government’s claims.
"All the information we have is converging to indicate there was a chemical massacre in Syria, near Damascus, and that Bashar Assad’s regime was behind it," Fabius told reporters during a visit to the West Bank city of Ramallah. He did not elaborate.
France has suggested that force could be used against Syria if Assad’s regime was proven to have used chemical arms.
The new talk of potential military action in in the country has made an independent investigation by U.N. inspectors critical to determine what exactly transpired.
The U.N. experts already in Syria are tasked with investigating three earlier purported chemical attacks in the country: one in the village of Khan al-Assal outside the northern city of Aleppo in March, as well as two other locations that have been kept secret for security reasons.Next Page >
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