The opposition in Syria on Wednesday accused President Bashar al-Assad's regime of launching a massive gas attack that killed nearly 500 people. That number has yet to be independently confirmed but, if accurate, represents by far the worst reported use of chemical weapons in the nation's two-year-old civil war. It would also be the worst known use of chemical weapons globally since Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the Iraqi town of Halabja in 1988.
Here's Reuters with the details from the ground:
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. ... Other rebel groups cited even higher figures.
Images, including some taken by freelance photographers and supplied to Reuters, showed scores of bodies including of small children, laid out on the floor of a clinic with no visible signs of injuries. Reuters was not independently able to verify the cause of their death. ...
Activists said rockets with chemical agents hit the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar during fierce pre-dawn bombardment by government forces. The Damascus Media Office monitoring centre 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. ...
[Update 12:01 p.m.: The Syrian National Coalition, Syria's main opposition group in exile, provides the high-end estimate of 1,300 killed, although that too is obviously unconfirmed.]
The Assad regime is denying it used chemical weapons, as it has in the past, and state-run media is claiming that the accusations are an effort to grab the attention of the U.N.'s 20-member team of experts that arrived earlier this week to investigate three sites where chemical weapons were allegedly used during the past year. As the Associated Press notes, the presence of the U.N. group on the ground "raises questions about why the regime" would launch a chemical weapon attack now. Then again, this is a conflict that has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people, so the attack would hardly be the first incomprehensible decision in a conflict filled with them.
The news comes almost one year to the day from when President Obama first issued his "red line" warning about chemical weapon use in Syria. This past June, the administration announced that it finally had what it considered conclusive evidence that Assad's forced had used chemical weapons against the rebels. That prompted plans to begin arming rebel groups and debate over setting up a no-fly zone over part of the country—although neither has happened yet.