The White House on Wednesday said it is “deeply concerned” about claims from Syrian opposition forces that as many as 1,300 people, including many women and children, were killed in a government-led chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta overnight.
Death toll estimates varied wildly and could not be immediately confirmed.
But on the heels of other reports of possible chemical weapons use in the region, allegations of yet another deadly attack renewed pressure on the Obama administration to respond.
“The United States strongly condemns any and all use of chemical weapons,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest in a statement to the media Wednesday.
“Today, we are formally requesting that the United Nations (UN) urgently investigate this new allegation. The UN investigative team, which is currently in Syria, is prepared to do so,” he said, adding that UN investigators must have immediate access to witnesses and victims, as well as the ability to collect physical evidence without interference from the Syrian government.
The attack came as a 20-member team of UN chemical weapons investigators was in Syria to look at three sites where chemicals weapons have allegedly been used during the past year. Earnest said the US did not have independent confirmation of the overnight attack.
“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” Earnest said.
“There should be no country that stands by or accepts the potential credible use of chemical weapons and every country should be supporting the effort by the UN investigative team to go in and look at as many cases as they can possibly look at and we believe there is a moral imperative to allow that to happen,” said Jen Psaki, State Department spokeswoman in a Wednesday briefing to reporters.
The UN Security Council is set to hold an emergency session on Wednesday over the chemical weapons reports.
The Syrian government quickly denied the reports of a chemical weapons attack telling the state-run SANA news agency, “These lies and allegations have become well-known to the Syrian government and people,” and are “an attempt to prevent the international investigation committee from carrying out its task and to influence the committee’s report.”
“Syria has repeatedly announced that it will never use any weapons of mass destruction against its own people, if such weapons exist,” SANA quoted an unnamed government official as saying.
Videos and photos purporting to show the bodies of victims lined up in makeshift morgues quickly popped up online, many of them showing very young children with no visible wounds.
“Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths,” a nurse told the Reuters news agency.
“The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims,” she added.
The US said in June that Syria probably used chemical weapons, which led to the decision to approve arming the rebels for the first time.”
Updated to reflect new comment by the US Department of State, new comment confirming the White House does not have independent confirmation of the attack in Damascus, and details about the UN team of investigators on the ground in Syria.