Syrian state television accuses rebels of chemical attacks

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The Syrian government on Saturday accused rebel battling President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of using chemical weapons in a north-eastern district of Damascus that killed hundreds of civilians, countering charges by opposition that the regime was behind such attacks.

Syrian state television said soldiers found chemical materials on Saturday in tunnels that had been used by rebels, rejecting blame for the nerve gas attack this week in Ghouta that heightened Western calls for foreign intervention, Reuters reported.

State television ran footage of “barrels filled with highly dangerous toxic and chemical agents” as well as gas masks, saying they were only a small sample of what had been unearthed in over-running rebel positions.

The rebels “used these agents to try to halt the advance of the army,” Reuters reported the TV as saying.

Meanwhile, Syria’s opposition denied the charge, saying the government was attempting to divert attention from its own use of them.

“The National Coalition totally rejects the lies from the Assad regime and considers them a desperate bid to divert attention from its repeated crimes and methods against Syrian civilians,” the main opposition bloc said.

The “international community knows full well that the Assad regime is the only party in Syria which possesses the means to produce, use and stock chemical weapons,” the statement said.

It also said it was trying to obtain satellite imagery proving the regime’s use of chemical weapons and criticized U.N. investigators for the delay in visiting the site of an alleged “massacre” Wednesday with such arms in a Damascus suburb.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday that the chemical weapons allegations were of “grave concern.”

To give Obama the option for an armed strike on Syria, Washington said it was realigning naval forces in the Mediterranean.

While Damascus strongly denied accusations that they are to blame for the attack, it has so far not said whether it will let U.N. inspectors visit the sites.

U.N. Under Secretary General Angela Kane arrived in Syria’s capital Saturday for talks aimed at establishing the terms of an inquiry into alleged chemical weapons attacks, an Agence France-Presse journalist said.

Kane did not comment to reporters as she entered the Four Seasons hotel, only a few kilometers (miles) away from the site of Wednesday’s reported chemical weapons strikes.

Her visit comes after U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon handed her the task and called for Syria’s regime and its opponents to cooperate in the U.N. efforts to establish an investigation into the attacks said to have killed hundreds of people.

Opponents of Assad’s regime said the president’s forces killed 1,300 people when they unleashed chemical weapons east and southwest of Damascus in the attacks on Wednesday.

(With AFP and Reuters)

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