Syria’s opposition accused government forces of gassing hundreds of people near Damascus on Wednesday after rockets released deadly fumes over rebelheld suburbs, killing men, women and children as they slept.

What would be the world’s most lethal chemical weapons attack since the 1980s prompted an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon said he was shocked.

As the death toll in Ghouta, a Sunnidominated and highly populated area, reportedly topped 1,000 civilians, many of the casualties were shown to have no flesh wounds, lending credence to loud claims from rebel leaders that the attack involved chemical weapons.

The death toll surpasses any single day so far in the two-year Syrian civil war between President Bashar Assad and the rebel groups. And if confirmed, the attack would represent the most egregious and deadly use of chemical weapons in any conflict in several decades.

Images, including some by freelance photographers supplied to Reuters, showed scores of bodies – some of them small children – laid on the floor of a clinic with no visible signs of injury.

Some images showed people with foam around their mouths.

The Syrian government denied it had used chemical arms.

“More details are sure to come out, but evidence shows something major has occurred in Ghouta to generate such death tolls,” said Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The regime has used chemical weapons repeatedly in Syria, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said on Wednesday, though he did not respond directly to reports of the Ghouta attack.

Describing the civil war as a life-anddeath struggle between Alawites and Sunnis, the defense minister said there was no end in sight to the conflict.

The Assad regime has lost control of Syria, and is present in only 40 percent of the country, Ya’alon said.

The Syrian war has become a longterm regional and global conflict, and Israel has chosen not to intervene, but to stick to red lines to protect its vital security interests, Ya’alon said.

“I don’t see an end to this situation; even Assad’s fall won’t lead to its end,” he said.

He noted the formations of ethnic and sectarian enclaves in Syria, including the Kurds in the northeast, who have links to Iraqi Kurds; Alawites in the coastal region linked to Damascus via a corridor; and Sunnis in the north.

Lebanon is linked to the Iranian-sponsored axis, hence the war from Syria is spilling over into it, Ya’alon said.

The United States joined Saudi Arabia, France, South Korea, Luxembourg and Great Britain in calling for an urgent meeting of the Security Council on Wednesday evening to address the allegations, the White House said, as it announced that Washington was formally requesting that the UN “urgently investigate this new allegation.”

“We are working urgently to gather additional information,” Josh Earnest, principal deputy White House press secretary, said, adding that the US is “deeply concerned” by the reports.

“We don’t have any corroborating evidence at this point,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The attack that occurred on Wednesday morning marked a year since President Barack Obama spoke from the White House calling the use of chemical weapons in Syria a “red line” for the United States.

“We talked about the red line and how it had been crossed a couple of months ago,” Psaki said, saying the issue had already been “litigated.”

George Sabra, president of the Syrian National Council coalition of opposition groups, told local Arab media outlets that 1,300 people had been killed in a chemical attack, while Brig.-Gen.

Salim Idris, chief of staff of the Westernbacked Supreme Military Council, put the initial estimate at 1,600.

A spokesman for the Syrian Foreign and Expatriates Ministry called the accusations “false and untrue,” and said that the government’s cooperation with the UN investigative team now in the country “didn’t please the terrorists and the countries supporting them, which is why they came up with new false accusations.”

The Arab League and the European Union have condemned the alleged attack, but Russia, while calling for a UN investigation into the claims, said on Wednesday that circumstances around

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