CAIRO - World awoke on Wednesday, August 21, to horrible images of hundreds of Syrian people laid out on the floor amid accusations to President Assad's security forces of killing 1,300 in the world's worst chemical weapons attack in decades..
But the Syrian army deniies the accusations, describing them as fabricated to cover up rebel losses.
Today's crimes are ... not the first time the regime has used chemical weapons. But they constitute a turning point in the regime's operations, George Sabra, one of the leading opponents of Assad, said, estimating the death toll at 1,300 killed by poison gas rained down on suburbs east of Damascus, Reuters reported on Wednesday, August 21.
This time it was for annihilation rather than terror, he told a news conference in Istanbul.
The attacks were reported on rebel-held areas of eastern Damascus.
Activists said rockets with chemical agents hit the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar during fierce pre-dawn bombardment by government forces.
According to activists at the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council, regime fighter planes were flying over the area after the bombardment.
"The attack took place at around 3:00 a.m. (8:00 p.m. EDT). Most of those killed were in their homes," Khaled Omar of the opposition Local Council in Ain Tarma said.
The activist group has also accused the forces loyal to President Bashar Assad of using chemical agents.
Initial reports made by rebel Syrian National Coalition said 650 people had been killed.
An opposition monitoring group, citing figures compiled from medical clinics in the Damascus suburbs, put the death toll at 494 - 90 percent of them killed by gas, the rest by bombing and conventional arms.
The Damascus Media Office monitoring center said 150 bodies were counted in Hammouriya, 100 in Kfar Batna, 67 in Saqba, 61 in Douma, 76 in Mouadamiya and 40 in Irbib, all suburbs of Damascus.
Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs and foam in their mouths, a nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, told Reuters.
The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims," the nurse said.
Exposure to sarin gas causes pupils in the eyes to shrink to pinpoint sizes and foaming at the lips.
If the cause of death and the scale of the killing were confirmed, it would be the worst known use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.
The Syrian government has denied all charges that its army used chemical weapons in an attack on rebel-held areas near Damascus on Wednesday that killed at least 600 people.
"Reports on the use of chemical weapons in (the suburbs of) Ghouta are totally false," state news agency SANA said, according to AFP.
It dismissed as "unfounded" the reports from opposition activists carried by Al-Jazeera, Sky and other satellite news channels "which are implicated in the shedding of Syrian blood and support terrorism," AFP reported.
The suspicious attacks come just three days after the UN experts checked in to a Damascus hotel a few kilometers to the east at the start of their mission.
"It would be very peculiar if it was the government to do this at the exact moment the international inspectors come into the country," said Rolf Ekeus, a retired Swedish diplomat who headed a team of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq in the 1990s.
"At the least, it wouldn't be very clever."
Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country will refer Syrian opposition claims to the UN Security Council
"I am deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of people, including children, have been killed in air strikes and a chemical weapons attack on rebel-held areas near Damascus.
"These reports are uncorroborated and we are urgently seeking more information. But it is clear that if they are verified, it would mark a shocking escalation in the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
"Those who order the use of chemical weapons, and those who use them, should be in no doubt that we will work in every way we can to hold them to account."
Hague called on the Syrian government to allow access to the area to UN investigators already in the country probing previous claims of chemical weapons use by the regime.
"The UK will be raising this incident at the UN Security Council," he said.
More than 100,000 people have been killed in two years of civil war between Assad's security forces and opposition forces.
The fighting has forced more than one million Syrians to flee their home to neighboring countries in addition to the displacement of two millions others inside the country.