BEIRUT: Syrian state television said troops found chemical agents in rebel tunnels in a Damascus suburb today and some soldiers were “suffocating”, intensifying a dispute over blame for a reported nerve gas attack that killed hundreds this week.
The top UN disarmament official arrived in Damascus today to seek access for inspectors to the site of the attack and the US was realigning naval forces in the region to give President Barack Obama the option for an armed strike on Syria.
Syrian opposition accounts that between 500 and well over 1,000 civilians were killed by gas in munitions fired by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and video footage of victims’ bodies, have heightened calls in the West for a robust, US-led response after tow-and-half years of international inaction on Syria’s conflict.
In a clear attempt to strengthen the government’s denials of responsibility for the suspected chemical assault, Syrian state television said soldiers came across chemical agents in rebel tunnels in the suburb of Jobar and some were overcome by fumes.
Syrian opposition activists accuse Assad’s forces of firing nerve gas projectiles into Jobar and other rebellious suburbs before dawn on Wednesday. Later in the week, activists crossed front lines around Damascus to smuggle out tissue samples from victims of the attack.
The Syrian government says it would never resort to chemical weapons against Syrian citizens and in the past has accused rebels of doing so for battlefield advantage, an allegation western leaders have dismissed.
But, in a development that could raise pressure on Obama to act, American and European security sources said US and allied intelligence agencies had made a preliminary assessment that chemical weapons were used by pro-Assad forces this week.
Major world powers - including Russia, Assad’s main ally which has long blocked UN-sponsored intervention against him — have urged Assad to cooperate with a UN inspection team to pursue earlier allegations of chemical weapons assaults in the civil war.
United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane arrived in Damascus today to press for a Syrian government green light for inspectors to examine areas of Damascus suburbs said to have been targeted on Wednesday.
Assad’s government has not said whether it will give such access despite increasing pressure from the United Nations, Western and Gulf Arab countries and Russia. If confirmed, it would be the world’s deadliest chemical attack in decades.
Washington said on Friday it was repositioning warships in the Mediterranean, although officials cautioned that Obama had made no decision on any military move.
Among the military options under consideration are targeted missile strikes on Syrian units believed responsible for chemical attacks or on Assad’s air force and ballistic missile sites, US officials said.