BEIRUT/AMMAN Syrian activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's forces of launching a nerve gas attack that killed at least 213 people on Wednesday, in what would, if confirmed, be by far the worst reported use of poison gas in the two-year-old civil war.
Reuters was not able to verify the accounts independently and they were denied by Syrian state television, which said they were disseminated deliberately to distract a team of United Nations chemical weapons experts which arrived three days ago.
The U.N. team is in Syria investigating allegations that both rebels and army forces used poison gas in the past, one of the main disputes in international diplomacy over Syria.
Activists said rockets with chemical agents hit the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar before dawn.
A nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, said the death toll, as collated from medical centers in the suburbs east of Damascus, was 213.
"Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupil dilated, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims," the nurse said.
Extensive amateur video and photographs purporting to show victims appeared on the Internet. A video purportedly shot in the Kafr Batna neighborhood showed a room filled with more than 90 bodies, many of them children and a few women and elderly men. Most of the bodies appeared ashen or pale but with no visible injuries. About a dozen were wrapped in blankets.
Other footage showed doctors treating people in makeshift clinics. One video showed the bodies of a dozen people lying on the floor of a clinic, with no visible wounds. The narrator in the video said they were all members of a single family. In a corridor outside lay another five bodies.
A photograph taken by activists in Douma showed the bodies of at least 16 children and three adults, one wearing combat fatigues, laid at the floor of a room in a medical facility where bodies were collected.
Syrian state television quoted a source as saying there was "no truth whatsoever" to the reports.
Syria is one of just a handful of countries that are not parties to the international treaty that bans chemical weapons, and Western nations believe it has caches of undeclared mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agents.
Assad's officials have said they would never use poison gas - if they had it - against Syrians. The United States and European allies believe Assad's forces used small amounts of sarin gas in attacks in the past, which Washington called a "red line" that justified international military aid for the rebels.
Assad's government has responded in the past with accusations that it was the rebels that used chemical weapons, which the rebels deny. Western countries say they do not believe the rebels have access to poison gas. Assad's main global ally Moscow says accusations on both sides must be investigated.
Khaled Omar of the opposition Local Council in Ain Tarma said he saw at least 80 bodies at the Hajjah Hospital in Ain Tarma and at a makeshift clinic at Tatbiqiya School in the nearby district of Saqba.
"The attack took place at around 3:00 a.m. (0000 GMT / 8:00 p.m. Tuesday EDT). Most of those killed were in their homes," Omar said.
The timing and location of the reported chemical weapons use - just three days after the team of U.N. chemical experts checked in to a Damascus hotel a few km (miles) to the east at the start of their mission - was surprising.
"Logically, it would make little sense for the Syrian government to employ chemical agents at such a time, particularly given the relatively close proximity of the targeted towns (to the U.N. team)," said Charles Lister, analysts at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center.
"Nonetheless, the Ghouta region (where the attacks were reported) is well known for its opposition leanings. Jabhat al-Nusra has had a long-time presence there and the region has borne the brunt of sustained military pressure for months now," he said, referring to a hardline Sunni Islamist rebel group allied to al Qaeda.
"While it is clearly impossible to confirm the chemical weapons claim, it is clear from videos uploaded by reliable accounts that a large number of people have died."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said dozens of people were killed, including children, in fierce bombardment. It said Mouadamiya, southwest of the capital, came under the heaviest attack since the start of the two-year conflict.
The Observatory called on the U.N. experts and international organizations to visit the affected areas to ensure aid could be delivered and to "launch an investigation to determine who was responsible for the bombardment and hold them to account".