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Syrian airstrikes, artillery pummel site of purported gas attack

| Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, 1:11 a.m.

DAMASCUS — Syria's deputy prime minister said foreign fighters and their international backers are to blame for a purported chemical weapons attack near Damascus that the opposition says killed at least 100 people, the deadliest such attack in Syria's civil war.

Government forces, meanwhile, pummeled the targeted rebel strongholds where the alleged attack occurred with airstrikes and artillery for a second day, violence that was likely to complicate any swift investigation into the mystery surrounding the deaths.

Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil's comments were part of a campaign to use the horror over the deaths to boost its narrative about the conflict — that Syria is under assault by foreign Islamic radicals.

Rebels blamed the attack on the Syrian military, saying toxic chemicals were used in artillery barrages on the area known as eastern Ghouta on Wednesday.

Jamil did not directly acknowledge that toxic gas was used against the eastern suburbs but denied allegations by anti-government activists that President Bashar Assad's forces were behind the assault.

The murky nature of the purported attacks, and the difficulty of gaining access to the sites amid the carnage of Syria's war and government restrictions on foreign media, has made it impossible to verify the claims.

But they have fueled calls in the West for greater action against Assad's regime as amateur videos and photos showed images of the dead, including scores of lifeless children, lying shoulder to shoulder, while others struggled to breathe.

The United States and a host of other countries demanded that a team of United Nations experts in Syria be granted immediate access to the site.

Jamil said he was personally in favor of a fair, transparent international delegation to investigate the incident in Ghouta. But he said this requires a new agreement between the government and the United Nations and that the conditions for such a delegation would need to be studied.

“We don't want to be like Iraq, opening our territory up to all sorts of investigators, going through our homes and bedrooms. Syria is a sovereign nation and will preserve its sovereignty,” he told the AP at the prime minister's offices in the Damascus district of Kfar Sousseh.

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