March 20, 2013 in Nation/World

U.S. rejects Syria’s claim of chemical attack by rebels

State-run news agency shows images of patients
Patrick J. Mcdonnell Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon – The Syrian government accused rebels Tuesday of killing dozens of civilians in a chemical attack near the northern city of Aleppo, the first allegation of such a devastating chemical strike during the more than two-year conflict.

The opposition vehemently denied the claim and charged that the government of President Bashar Assad was behind the attack.

The alleged chemical assault injects an explosive new issue into the international debate about how to deal with the escalating violence in Syria, where tens of thousands have already died and aid experts have warned of a looming humanitarian catastrophe. Diplomatic efforts to craft a cease-fire have failed; more than 1 million Syrians have fled the country.

U.S. officials on Tuesday reacted cautiously to the cross-allegations, saying there was no definitive evidence that a chemical attack had been unleashed.

“We are looking carefully at the information as it comes in,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

At the same time, Washington flatly rejected the possibility of a rebel-launched chemical attack and asserted that the Syrian government was capable of conducting such a strike.

Each side in the conflict has routinely blamed the other for massacres and attacks that caused large-scale civilian casualties.

Syria’s state-run news agency said al-Qaida-linked “terrorists” – its standard term for the armed opposition – had fired a chemically armed rocket early Tuesday that killed 25 and injured 110. The missile, launched from a rebel-controlled district, fell about 300 yards from its apparent intended target, a military post outside Aleppo, the government said.

The explosion unleashed a gas that caused those who inhaled it to have convulsions and lose consciousness, the government said. The state media showed images of patients said to be suffering from irregular breathing, neurological disorders and other symptoms consistent with a chemical attack.

The government seemed to link the strike to a previous rebel seizure of a factory in Aleppo that contained tons of chlorine, a chemical employed in water purification and used for many industrial purposes but also deployed as a toxic gas in World War I. Experts say chlorine gas is not an especially effective weapon because it disperses quickly in the air.

The Reuters news agency reported that apparent victims at a hospital in Aleppo were suffering from breathing problems. The victims said they smelled chlorine after the attack.

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