Archive for September, 2013

(By Emily Backus) (ANSA) – Rome, August 26 – More Syrian refugees landed on Italian shores over the weekend in a humanitarian crisis that appears to be spilling even into Europe’s lap.

Ninety-eight refugees from Syria on Saturday were intercepted by a patrol of Frontex, the European agency for cooperation and management of EU borders. They were aboard a ship at sea about 40 miles south of the Sicilian coastal town of Porto Palo. Twenty-five children and eight women were aboard. The Syrian refugees were among hundreds this weekend alone from distressed countries – Tunisia, Eritrea and Somalia – who risked their lives in dodgy vessels to be rescued near or found on Italian shores. Syrians have featured all summer long among migrants daring the sea from various parts of the Middle East and Africa, who are generally placed by Italian authorities in migrant detention centers for identification, processing, and possible expulsion. On a visit to the migrant island of Lampedusa last month, Pope Francis asked God to forgive European policy makers’ indifference while hailing immigrants’ efforts to seek better lives.

He also asked to mourn the many lives lost at sea.

Last week the UNHCR and UNICEF in Geneva said one million children have fled fighting in Syria, about three quarters of whom are under age 11. In the words of UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, the survival and well-being of an entire generation of innocent children is at stake.

“The youth of Syria are losing their homes, their family members and their futures.

Even after they have crossed a border to safety, they are traumatized, depressed and in need of a reason for hope,” he added. Children account for over half of the two million refugees who have fled Syria to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

Syrians are arriving in North Africa and, embarking across the sea to Europe ever more often.

The price paid by Syrian children in the conflict – now in its third year – is enormous.

In addition to the one million child refugees, there are some two million displaced children in Syria. The UN estimates that at least 7,000 children have been killed in the conflict, while child refugees are often exposed to threats such as forced labor, early marriage and sexual exploitation.

Source: La Gazzeta.


19 September 2013

MALACCA: Malaysia is expected to send its second batch of astronauts to carry out research at the International Space Station (ISS) by 2016.

Deputy Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Dr Abu Bakar Mohamad Diah said agencies under the ministry were working with numerous parties on the mission and direction of the proposed program.

“We are studying various matters, including sending two astronauts and carrying out experiments that would benefit the nation at the ISS.

“All these considerations have to be looked into, as the program involves a hefty allocation and is not merely a space tour.

“We will submit a proposal to the cabinet when our research is completed,” he said after opening the Science4u Carnival in Air Keroh, here yesterday.

The one-day carnival, held to foster interest in science and technology among students nationwide, is among 103 programs implemented by the ministry in schools.

On Oct 10, 2007, Malaysia sent astronaut Datuk Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor to the ISS onboard the Soyuz TMA-11 rocket, with cooperation from the Russian Federal Space Agency.

He carried out experiments, including on cancer cells and leukemia, at the space station.

Source: New Straits Times.


September 15, 2013

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s new Socialist prime minister has easily won approval for his government in parliament, pledging to fight poverty and unemployment and take the country closer to the European Union in the next four years.

Lawmakers voted 82-55 Sunday to approve the 20-member Cabinet. Edi Rama’s Socialist-led leftist coalition won a landslide election victory in June, defeating conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha on pledges of fighting widespread corruption and bringing the NATO member closer to its goal of joining the EU.

The 49-year-old Rama has promised to create 300,000 jobs at home and reduce poverty. A recent survey shows one in seven Albanians live on less than $2 per day. Albania is one of Europe’s poorest countries, with a minimum salary of 21,000 leks ($199) per month.

By Jessica Donati and Miriam Arghandiwal

KABUL | Tue Aug 20, 2013

(Reuters) – Flinging sparkling clubs into the air, the girls showed off their juggling skills as the boys executed dazzling acrobatics and climbed into a four-storey human pyramid.

Afghanistan’s Mobile Mini Circus for Children would have been heretical under the Taliban, when music was banned by the Islamic fundamentalist movement and girls were forbidden from performing in public and going to school.

But today the circus, founded by Danish dance instructor David Mason to teach cooperation and creativity to children scarred by years of war, is one of few projects expanding despite a drop in international aid to Afghanistan.

“Left on the street, kids turn to bad things, becoming suicide bombers or street thugs,” said Murtaza Nowrozi, an 18-year-old juggler from the western province of Herat. “It’s better for them to go to school and join programs like this.”

Nowrozi found out about the circus at school but many of the members are orphans or from refugee camps. The most talented children have been on tour to Denmark, Germany, Italy and Japan, and some have stayed on with the project to become teachers.

Mason started the circus with his own money and got the first donation of $1,000 in 2002, the year after U.S-led forces invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban.

Despite the dangers, the project has grown so popular that it now runs centers in seven provinces and has about 300 regular students. With dozens of donors and workshops to raise money, the budget is close to $500,000 and its tours of 25 of the country’s 34 provinces have reached nearly 3 million people.


The brightly painted circus “funtainers” – shipping containers converted into practice and performance areas – are hard to miss, but the shows are tailored to regional customs.

In eastern parts of the country, girls do not perform. In the ultra-conservative south, performances run without music. Passages from the Koran, the central religious text of Islam, are always recited at the start.

“We are doing things in a very Afghan and Islamic way,” said Mason, noting that all of the circus staff, children and customs are native to the country. “We are not trying to come up with new ideas unfamiliar to Afghans.”

Mason refuses to be dispirited by the prospect of a Taliban revival. He is confident the circus will thrive despite the deterioration in security conditions accompanying the withdrawal of foreign troops from various areas as they prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

“It’s just a matter of mutual understanding and accepting each other,” Mason said.

That message also applies to the National Circus Festival run by the project each year to bring together circus children from different provinces and ethnic groups to encourage them to work together and become friends.

“What we do at the social circus is, for example, making the pyramid,” said Mason. “You have 10 people that have to, with all their bones and muscles, understand themselves and the others.”

The festival, including a juggling championship, was held in and around Kabul in mid-August. On the last day, the winners of a photography competition were invited on stage to show poster-sized images of their work.

All turned out to be girls, including Shazia, 13, from the northern Panjshir Valley.

“When they first gave me a camera, I felt very intimidated. I was a poor Afghan girl who had never held a camera before so I was terrified my pictures would be bad,” said Shazia, who like many Afghans has only one name. “Now I’m so happy I won, I feel like I can succeed at many things I haven’t tried before.”

(Editing by John O’Callaghan and Ron Popeski)

Source: Reuters.


By Mariam Karouny

BEIRUT | Sun Aug 25, 2013

(Reuters) – Syria’s Western-backed political opposition plans to create the nucleus of a national army to bring order to the disparate rebel forces battling President Bashar al-Assad and counter the strength of al Qaeda-linked rebel brigades.

The latest attempt to unite the rebels coincides with fierce debates in Washington and other Western capitals over whether and how to boost support for Assad’s opponents after an alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces on Wednesday.

Chaos among opposition forces and al-Qaeda’s growing role are barriers to any intervention.

Plans for an army are still under wraps but details began emerging earlier this month before the gas attack. It has the blessing of the rebels’ patron Saudi Arabia, which took over as the main regional backer of Assad’s foes earlier this year.

“It is very serious. It will be a proper army. The future of Syria depends on this move,” said a senior member of Syria’s opposition National Coalition, which hopes to set up the force.

Momentum behind the new force comes from Saudi Arabia and Western nations who, alarmed by the growth of radical Islamists in rebel-held areas, have thrown their weight behind the Syrian Coalition, hoping it could help stem their power.

“Once we get the (battle)field organized, then everything will be organized,” he said. “This will be the army of the new Syria. We want to integrate its ranks and unify the sources of funding and arms,” the Syrian National Coalition member said.

Saudi Arabia has prevailed over Qatar to impose itself as the main outside force supporting the Syrian rebels, in part to counter the influence of Qatari-backed Islamist militants.

Riyadh has put forward $100 million as preliminary funding for a force planned to be 6,000 to 10,000 strong, rebels say.

Sources in the Coalition said the aim was to form a core of several thousand well-trained fighters that would also serve as the base for a bigger national army once Assad was toppled, avoiding a military vacuum and anarchy.

More than two years of a revolt-turned civil war have turned Syria into a magnet for jihadists from across the world, fuelling fears foreign military assistance might fall into the hands of fighters hostile to the West.

That has served only to strengthen the hand of Islamist brigades whose regional backers, many of them private Gulf donors, have been more forthcoming with support.

In recent weeks, al Qaeda-linked groups attacked several Alawite villages in the coastal province of Latakia, Assad’s stronghold. They also seized a strategic airport in Aleppo province that Syrian rebels failed for months to take.

Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front, both of which acknowledge the authority of al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahri, are now the ultimate rulers in many rebel-held towns.

The authority of the Supreme Military Council – the latest body that Western and Gulf powers have promoted as a moderate, unified rebel command – is increasingly challenged by radical Islamists and foreign jihadists, most recently when an Iraqi Islamist killed one of its senior commanders.

The Military Council demanded that the man, Abu Ayman al-Iraqi, be arrested, but he remains at large, playing a prominent role in rebel campaigns.


Rebel commanders contacted by Reuters in Aleppo, Idlib, Raqqa, Homs and Damascus said they feared the new army would deepen divisions among rebels and lead to further infighting. Comments from Islamists played into those fears.

“The real goal behind this army is that they want to fight Islamists,” said a commander of a powerful Islamist brigade in Idlib province. “It’s an open game. They will not announce it now or immediately, but this is the long term for it … We will not join, for sure. Not only us, but many others, too.”

A source in Aleppo close to al-Nusra Front said: “With every passing day, those living outside are becoming tools to the West … They fear Islam and see it as the enemy. Unfortunately, some Syrians are falling into this trap.”

Western-backed rebels say the new structure might be modeled on U.S.-backed militias, known as “Awakening Councils”, which drove al Qaeda from Iraq’s Anbar region six years ago.

The leader of one moderate Islamist brigade, which operates in several parts of the country, said he supported the proposal, but would not say if his fighters would join.

Leaders of more radical groups see it as a Western-backed plot to fight them. “They are undermining the work of all of us. They want to throw it in the bin, as if it never happened,” said a senior commander in Homs province.

Opposition political sources were careful not to portray the new army as a challenge to Islamists, but a senior official said it would only welcome them if they left their brigades.

“This will be an army like any other army in the world. When you join it you leave your beliefs outside. Islamists can join as individuals, not as Islamists.”

The new body is not an alliance of brigades, as in previous attempts to unify insurgency groups; individual fighters will be expected to leave their units to sign up.

The Homs commander said that showed the real intention was to dismantle the Islamist units. “This thing is very suspicious,” he said.

Many Syrians initially welcomed the Islamists for bringing order to the chaos of rebel-held territories, but growing resentment of their puritanical rule could win popular sympathy for any new force that challenges them.

Activists in the northern, rebel-held provinces, where Islamists are most powerful, say those criticizing the Islamists are threatened or imprisoned.

“We have challenged Assad when he was strong, and now we are being bullied by radicals who are not even Syrians in our Syria,” said an activist in Aleppo who declined to be named.

With weapons and money flooding into the country, a class of warlords has emerged, including Islamists, who have grown powerful on arms deals and oil smuggling. Activists in the north complain of high levels of theft, bullying and thuggery.

“With this army the Coalition will have a military force on the ground, one that is composed of the best Syrian fighters,” said a Syrian rebel commander in a powerful brigade that has fighters across Syria.

Coalition leader Ahmed Jarba “wants to strike with an iron fist”, he said, adding that the Saudi-backed Jarba wanted all weapons entering Syria to be overseen by his coalition.

However, the al Qaeda-linked rebels control many border crossings in the north, giving them strong influence over what enters the country and who gets hold of it.

The proposed new force must also overcome the same skepticism many fighters feel towards the Military Council.

A rebel commander in the north-eastern Raqqa province, voicing widely shared views, dismissed the body as ineffective and subject to foreign influence.

“They do not have a presence on the ground. They left us on our own. When we need them, they are not here, and then they come and ask us: Where are you getting your funding from? Well, not from you for sure.

“They are only performing external agendas. They don’t know what is happening inside; their people tell them Islamists are the enemies, you need to fight them to get funding, so they come to us and they say: Yes, let’s fight Islamists.”


Sources say the army will be launched, at a date yet to be fixed, in Deraa, the southern province that was the cradle of the 2011 uprising and where the presence of jihadists is still relatively weak.

Jordan is now playing a bigger role in helping the rebels and is more flexible in allowing weapons to enter the southern front, the sources said. A military operations room to oversee the battle in the south is now in Jordan and includes Saudi, Syrian and American officers.

One of the sources said Manaf Tlas, a senior army officer and former friend of Assad who defected last year, is also a member of the joint operation room. He is close to Jarba and has good ties to Saudi Arabia. His name has been floated as the chief of the new army.

But many rebels distrust Tlas because he waited months before defecting, and his father served as defense minister under Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, for three decades.

A Coalition official declined to say whether Tlas would head the new army but said he would welcome him having a role. “The man has been an advocate of this from the beginning.”

However, an Islamist commander in Aleppo said Tlas’s leadership would be “another reason why we will not join”.

In the meantime, most agree that the disparate groups should work together, at least in temporary alliances against Assad’s troops. But they share a skepticism that the new group will ever see the light of day, or have much impact if it does.

“During this revolution we have seen many great ideas and many great attempts destroyed because of mismanagement. The Free Syrian Army is an example of this. As long as the roots of the problems are not solved, then nothing will change.”

“They are all failed projects; there is no awareness among those leading this revolution and also there is no clear strategy. In addition to this you have got the hesitation from the West. As long as this continues, this will be a failed project.”

(Editing by Dominic Evans, Will Waterman and Philippa Fletcher)

Source: Reuters.


August 25, 2013

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — The leader of an al-Qaida linked militia fighting to overthrow the Syrian government has vowed to take revenge for what he says was Damascus’ use of chemical weapons that killed hundreds of people.

Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani’s comments came in an audio recording posted Sunday on a militant website that usually carries al-Qaida and similar groups’ statements. It also appeared on the group’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The authenticity of the claim could not be immediately verified. Al-Golani said he plans to target Shiite Muslim villages. President Bashar Assad’s regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Last Wednesday’s alleged chemical attack in a suburb of Damascus prompted U.S. naval forces to move closer to Syria as President Barack Obama considers a military response.

August 24, 2013

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — The Pakistani Taliban sidelined a senior commander Saturday for welcoming the government’s offer to hold peace talks, the group’s spokesman said, exposing a rift within the group and raising questions about the likelihood of negotiations.

The commander, Asmatullah Muawiya, was not authorized to respond to the government’s offer, said Pakistani Taliban spokesman Shahidullah Shahid. Muawiya has been removed from his position as leader of the Pakistani Taliban’s wing from central Punjab province, said Shahid.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who took office in June, campaigned on a platform that included starting peace talks with the Taliban as the best way to end the group’s bloody insurgency, which has resulted in thousands of deaths in recent years.

Sharif reiterated his desire to hold negotiations in a speech on Monday, but also said the government would leave open the possibility of using force. The Pakistani military has waged scores of operations against the Taliban in recent years, but the militants have proven resilient and continue to carry out frequent attacks.

Sharif has continued to push for peace talks even after the Taliban withdrew on offer to negotiate at the end of May in response to a U.S. drone strike that killed the group’s deputy commander. Muawiya raised eyebrows on Thursday when he sent a statement to journalists saying militants should respond positively to the government’s offer to hold peace talks if it was serious. His view was seen as carrying weight because the Taliban’s leadership has supported his statements in the past, and he was the first person to indicate at the end of last year that the militant group was open to the possibility of holding negotiations. The Taliban’s leader issued a video shortly thereafter affirming the position.

But Shahid, the Taliban spokesman, said the group’s leadership would meet to decide their position on the government’s offer. “A decision about talks with the government should be taken after reviewing their position,” Shahid said, adding that the group didn’t appreciate the government’s “threats.”

Muawiya, however, defied the main group’s decision, telling The Associated Press that the executive council couldn’t remove him because the Punjabi Taliban is a separate group. He said his group has its own decision-making body to decide leadership and other matters.

The idea of holding government peace talks with the Taliban is controversial in Pakistan because past deals have largely fallen apart. Pakistanis have criticized the agreements for allowing militants to rebuild their strength to resume fighting the government and U.S.-led troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Activists also have raised concerns that future peace deals could include provisions that threaten human rights in the country, especially for women.

Even if the two sides sit down to talk, it’s unclear whether they will be able to find common ground given the Taliban’s demands that Islamic law be implemented and Islamabad break its alliance with Washington. It’s also unclear what Pakistan’s powerful generals would support. The army is considered the most powerful institution in Pakistan and has lost thousands of troops fighting the Taliban.

Talk of a peace deal could be troubling to the U.S. if it is seen as providing militants with greater space to carry out operations in Afghanistan. However, Washington’s push for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban could also make it difficult to oppose an agreement in Pakistan.

The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have primarily focused their attacks on opposite sides of the border. The Pakistani Taliban also trained the Pakistani-American who failed to carry out an attempted car bombing in New York’s Times Square in 2010.

Associated Press writer Ishtiaq Mahsud contributed to this report from Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan.

August 23, 2013

TRIPOLI, Lebanon (AP) — Twin car bombs exploded Friday outside mosques in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, killing at least 29 people, wounding more than 350 and wreaking major destruction in the country’s second largest city, officials said.

Footage aired on local television stations showed thick, black smoke billowing over the city and bodies scattered beside burning cars in scenes reminiscent of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.

The blasts hit amid soaring tensions in Lebanon as a result of Syria’s civil war, particularly following the open participation of the militant Shiite Hezbollah group on behalf of embattled President Bashar Assad. Their entry into the war has further polarized the country along sectarian lines. Preachers at both of the targeted mosques are virulent opponents of Assad and Hezbollah.

Friday’s attack was the second such bombing in more than a week, showing the degree to which the tiny country is being consumed by the raging war next door. Tripoli, a predominantly Sunni Muslim city, has seen frequent clashes between Sunnis and Alawites, a Shiite offshoot sect to which Assad belongs. But the city itself has rarely seen such bombings in recent years.

It was the most powerful and deadliest bombing in Tripoli since the end of the civil war. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Dozens of bearded gunmen deployed on the streets of Tripoli following the attacks, checking people’s identity card and driving around in SUVs. A prominent Salafist sheik, Dai al-Islam Shahhal, said Sunnis in Tripoli would take security in their own hands going forward, blaming the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon for the bombings.

Attacks have become common in the past few months against Shiite strongholds in Lebanon. On Aug. 15, a car bomb rocked a Shiite stronghold of Hezbollah in the southern suburbs of Beirut, killing 27 people and wounding more than 300. A less powerful car bomb targeted the same area on July 9, wounding more than 50.

Witness Samir Darwish said he was in a Tripoli square when he heard the first explosion and ran in the direction of the fire to the Salam Mosque, one of the two targeted. “I came here and saw the catastrophe. Bloodied people were running in the street, several other dead bodies were scattered on the ground,” he said. “It looked like doomsday, death was everywhere.”

Hezbollah swiftly condemned the bombings, calling it a “terrorist bombing” and part of a “criminal project that aims to sow the seeds of civil strife between the Lebanese and drag them into sectarian and ethnic infighting.”

In a strongly worded statement, the group expressed “utmost solidarity and unity with our brothers in the beloved city of Tripoli.” The bombings came the same day Israeli warplanes struck a target south of Beirut, hours after militants in south Lebanon fired four rockets into northern Israel. It was the first air raid on the area since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. The strike demonstrates the chaos and security challenges engulfing Lebanon, which has been without a functioning government since March, largely because of infighting between political factions.

The explosions shattered windows in apartment blocks over a wide area and triggered car fires that left the charred bodies of trapped people inside. After the bombings, bloodied people could be seen being ferried away by screaming residents. Gunmen took to the streets, firing in the air in anger, which delayed the arrival of army troops and investigators.

Local media and mosques called for blood donations. Hospitals were overwhelmed with the dead and wounded. The blasts went off on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, when places of worship would be packed. A security official said one of the blasts exploded outside the Taqwa mosque, the usual place of prayer for Sheik Salem Rafei, a Salafi cleric opposed to Hezbollah. It was not clear whether he was inside the mosque, but Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said he wasn’t hurt.

The official said the blast went off as worshippers were streaming out of the mosque. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. The second car bomb explosion went off about five minutes later in the Mina district of Tripoli, about five meters from the gate to the Salam Mosque. The explosion blew open a 5-meter (16-foot) -wide and 1-meter (3-foot) -deep crater outside the mosque.

Former Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, a senior leader in the Western-backed, anti-Hezbollah coalition in Lebanon, called on the group to withdraw its fighters immediately from Syria, saying its involvement in the war has opened Lebanon to terrorist threats.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati declared Saturday to be a day of mourning for the dead. The U.S. Embassy in Lebanon condemned the bombings and called on all parties to exercise calm and restraint.

Associated Press writer Zeina Karam contributed from Beirut.


Nouakchott (AFP) – An al-Qaeda-linked militia founded by wanted Islamist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced on Thursday it had joined forces with another armed group to take revenge against France for its military offensive in Mali.

Belmokhtar’s Mauritania-based Al-Mulathameen Brigade (The Brigade of the Masked Ones) and the Mali-based Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) said they had joined forces under a single banner to unite Muslims across the region.

“Your brothers in Mujao and Al-Mulathameen announce their union and fusion in one movement called Al-Murabitoun to unify the ranks of Muslims around the same goal, from the Nile to the Atlantic,” the groups said in a statement published by Mauritanian news agency ANI.

Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian former commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), allegedly masterminded a siege in January of an Algerian gas plant in which 38 hostages, including three Americans, died.

Branded “The Uncatchable”, Belmokhtar is also thought to have been behind twin car bombings in Niger in May that left at least 20 people dead.

The Algeria siege and the Niger assaults were said to have been carried out in retaliation for France’s military intervention launched in January against Islamist groups in Mali.

Belmokhtar, who broke away from Aqim in 2012 and was involved in the fighting against Chadian forces in Mali, was reported to have been killed in action in March.

The reports, however, were never confirmed and it is believed that he remains at large.

He has been designated a foreign terrorist by the United States since 2003, with the State Department offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

Stronger than ever

Mujao is thought to be led by Mauritanian ethnic Tuareg Ahmed Ould Amer, who goes by the nom de guerre “Ahmed Telmissi”.

The group broke away from Aqim in mid-2011 with the apparent goal of spreading jihad further into areas of west Africa not within Aqim’s scope.

It was one of a number of Islamist groups that occupied northern Mali last year, imposing a brutal interpretation of Islamic sharia law characterized by amputations, beatings and executions, before being ousted by the French-led military intervention.

The statement said the two men had signed a document announcing their merger and ceding command of the new movement to “another personality”, without revealing the identity of the new leader, according to ANI.

The statement said the jihadist movement in the region was now “stronger than ever” and threatened France and its allies, promising “to rout their troops”.

Al-Murabitoun – an Arabic phrase meaning “the sentinels” – was the name given to a Berber dynasty of Morocco which formed an empire in the 11th century.

Today the name is used by a Nasserist political party in Lebanon.

Source: News24.


August 22, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — The images showed lifeless children — wrapped in simple white cloths, their pale faces unmarked by any wound — lined up shoulder to shoulder in a vivid demonstration of an attack Wednesday in which activists say the Syrian regime killed at least 130 people with toxic gas.

The Syrian government adamantly denied using chemical weapons in an artillery barrage targeting suburbs east of Damascus, calling the allegations “absolutely baseless.” The U.S., Britain and France demanded that a team of U.N. experts already in the country be granted immediate access to investigate the claims.

Videos and photographs showed row upon row of bodies wrapped in white shrouds lying on a tile floor, including more than a dozen children. There was little evidence of blood or conventional injuries and most appeared to have suffocated. Survivors of the purported attack, some twitching uncontrollably, lay on gurneys with oxygen masks covering their faces.

Activists and the opposition leadership gave widely varying death tolls, ranging from as low as 136 to as high as 1,300. But even the most conservative tally would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria’s civil war.

For months now, the rebels, along with the United States, Britain and France, have accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons in its campaign to try to snuff out the rebellion against President Bashar Assad that began in March 2011. The regime and its ally, Russia, have denied the allegations, pinning the blame on the rebels.

The murky nature of the purported attacks, and the difficulty of gaining access to the sites amid the carnage of Syria’s war, has made it impossible to verify the claims. After months of negotiations, a U.N. team finally arrived in Damascus on Sunday to begin its investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. But the probe is limited to three sites and only seeks to determine whether chemical agents were used, not who unleashed them.

The timing of Wednesday’s attack — four days after the U.N. team’s arrival — raised questions about why the regime would use chemical agents now. The White House said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” by the reports, and spokesman Josh Earnest said the Obama administration had requested that the U.N. “urgently investigate this new allegation.”

“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the U.N. team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” Earnest said.

Almost exactly one year ago, President Barack Obama called chemical weapons a “red line” for potential military action, and in June, the U.S. said it had conclusive evidence that Assad’s regime had used chemical weapons against opposition forces.

But the possibility of intervention seemed ever smaller after Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a letter this week that the administration is opposed to even limited action because it believes rebels fighting the Assad government wouldn’t support American interests.

Russia decried Wednesday’s reports as “alarmist.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich denounced an “aggressive information campaign” laying full blame on the Syrian government as a provocation aimed at undermining efforts to convene peace talks between the two sides.

The regime began shelling the capital’s eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma around 3 a.m. as part of a fierce government offensive in the area, which has a strong rebel presence, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

The heavy thud of artillery and rockets, as well as the grinding roar of fighter jets, could be heard by Damascus residents throughout the night and early Wednesday, and a pall of gray smoke hung over the towns.

Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman cited activists in the area who said “poisonous gas” was fired in rockets as well as from the air. He said that he had documented at least 136 deaths, but said it was not clear whether the victims died from shelling or toxic gas.

The Local Coordination Committees activist group said hundreds of people were killed or wounded. The Syrian National Coalition, the main Western-backed opposition group in exile, put the number at 1,300, basing its claim on accounts and photographs by activists on the ground.

George Sabra, a senior member of the Coalition, blamed the regime, as well as “the weakness of the U.N. and American hesitation” for the deaths. “The silence of our friends is killing us,” he said, adding that Wednesday’s attack effectively eliminated any chance for peace negotiations with the regime.

Syria is said to have one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin. Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent researcher who specializes in chemical and biological weapons and disarmament, said that in videos of the aftermath of the attacks, the hue of the victims’ faces appeared to show many suffered from asphyxiation.

However, he said the symptoms they exhibited were not consistent with mustard gas or the nerve agents VX or sarin. Mustard gas would cause blistering of the skin and discoloration, while the nerve agents would produce severe convulsions in the victims and also affect the paramedics treating them — neither of which was evident from the videos or reports.

“I’m deliberately not using the term chemical weapons here,” he said. “There’s plenty of other nasty stuff that was used in the past as a chemical warfare agent, so many industrial toxicants could be used too.”

A pharmacist in the town of Arbeen who identified himself as Abu Ahmad said he attended to dozens of wounded people in a field hospital after the shelling on Zamalka and Ein Tarma early Wednesday. He said many were moved to Arbeen.

The bodies of 63 of the dead had signs of a chemical weapons attack, he said, though he could not confirm this. “Their mouths were foaming, their pupils were constricted, and those who were brought in while still alive could not draw their breaths and died subsequently,” he told The Associated Press via Skype. “The skin around their eyes and noses was grayish.”

Activists in nearby Zamalka told Abu Ahmed that an additional 200 people died in that town on Wednesday. Syria’s information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, denied government troops used chemical agents, calling the activists’ claim a “disillusioned and fabricated one whose objective is to deviate and mislead” the U.N. mission.

The head of the U.N. team, which has a mandate to investigate previous claims of alleged chemical attacks, said he wants to look into the latest claims. Speaking to Swedish broadcaster SVT, Ake Sellstrom said the high numbers of dead and wounded being reported “sound suspicious.”

“It looks like something we need to look into,” Sellstrom, who is Swedish, was quoted as saying. He said a formal request from a member state would have to go through U.N. channels and Syria would need to agree — and there is no guarantee that it would.

French President Francois Hollande said the latest allegations “require verification and confirmation,” according to government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Hollande said he would ask the U.N. to go to the site “to shed full light” on the allegations.

In addition to the U. S. and Britain, Germany, Turkey and the EU called for immediate U.N. access to the site of the alleged attack. The Syrian government did not immediately respond to the demands. The U.N. Security Council held emergency consultations about the purported attack, and U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said Sellstrom’s team was in talks with the Syrian government about all alleged chemical attack, including Wednesday’s.

Mohammed Saeed, an activist in the area, told the AP via Skype that hundreds of dead and injured people were rushed to six makeshift hospitals in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. “This is a massacre by chemical weapons,” he said. “The visit by the U.N. team is a joke. … (Assad) is using the weapons and telling the world that he does not care.”

Photos posted on Facebook by an activist group in Arbeen showed rows of Syrian children wrapped in white shrouds, and others with their chests bare. There appeared to be very little sign of blood or physical wounds on the bodies.

In an amateur video posted online, a young girl with curly brown hair wearing a Minnie Mouse shirt lay on the ground, her head lolling on the tile floor as doctors injected medicine into her arm. Next to her, paramedics attended to two young boys who appeared unconscious, their bodies limp.

The photos and videos distributed by activists to support their claims were consistent with AP reporting of shelling in the area, though it was not known if the victims died from a poisonous gas attack.

Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Lynn Berry in Moscow, Amir Bibawy in New York, Sarah El Deeb in Cairo, Malin Rising in Stockholm, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.