The White House on Wednesday condemned the possible new use of chemical weapons in Syria and called for a U.N. team now in the Middle East nation to investigate with urgency.
"The United States is deeply concerned by reports that hundreds of Syrian civilians have been killed in an attack by Syrian government forces, including by the use of chemical weapons, near Damascus earlier today," Josh Earnest, President Obama's principal deputy press secretary, said in a released statement. "We are working urgently to gather additional information."
The spokesman called on "those responsible for the use of chemical weapons" to "be held accountable."
The White House said it formally was requesting that Swedish arms expert Ake Sellstrom and his U.N.-sponsored team probe the new allegations. The investigators arrived in the Middle East nation late last week to look into three claims of prior chemical-arms use.
"The U.N. investigative team, which is currently in Syria, is prepared" to investigate the latest possible chemical assault, "and that is consistent with its purpose and mandate," Earnest said. "For the U.N.’s efforts to be credible, they must have immediate access to witnesses and affected individuals, and have the ability to examine and collect physical evidence without any interference or manipulation from the Syrian government.
"If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria," the spokesman added, "it will facilitate the U.N. team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site."
Sellstrom earlier in the day expressed his own interest in investigating the fresh allegations of a major toxic gas strike, saying that he would lead the inquiry into the possible new attack if nations from around the globe requested it, the Associated Press reported.
Reports of massive casualties from the incident "sound suspicious," and it appears to be "something we need to look into," Sellstrom told SVT television on Wednesday. "It will depend on whether any U.N. member state goes to the secretary general and says we should look at this event. We are in place," Reuters quoted him as saying.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is "aware of the reports," his office tweeted. "We are trying to find out more."
Syrian President Bashar Assad's government has rejected rebel assertions that its forces launched chemical rocket strikes on the outskirts of Damascus, Reuters said separately. Reported death tolls from the alleged assault conflicted, but reached into the hundreds and possibly totaled more than 1,000.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said his country would refer the incident to the U.N. Security Council, and he urged the Assad regime "to allow immediate access to the area for the U.N. team," Reuters reported. France, Germany, Turkey and the 22-nation Arab League each individually requested that the United Nations expand its investigation to include the latest claims.
Russia also reportedly called for a fair and professional investigation into the new alleged attack. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevicha said the incident's timing suggests it is a "pre-planned provocation."
Former U.N. arms investigator Rolf Ekeus told Reuters that "it would be very peculiar if it was the government to do this at the exact moment the international inspectors come into the country."
"At the least, it wouldn't be very clever," he added. The latest event would be simpler to assess than the past alleged strikes, because "it is easier to do sampling and testing, and also to look at the victims, if there are sick people or even dead people (on the scene)," the wire service separately quoted him as saying. "It is easier to get to doctors and get to the place where the event happened."
A former European Union Institute chemical weapons analyst said he was "skeptical" of prior chemical attack reports emerging from Syria, but "it is clear that something terrible has happened" in the latest incident.
"The scenes could not have been stage-managed," he wrote in a Wednesday blog post. "However, it is extremely puzzling that government forces would launch a chemical attack precisely at the moment when U.N. inspectors are finally in the country to investigate some of the earlier allegations."
Earnest, the White House spokesman, said Washington additionally has "called for urgent consultations in the U.N. Security Council to discuss these allegations and to call for the Syrian government to provide immediate access to the U.N. investigative team."
The United States, he said, was urging "all Syrian parties including the government and opposition, to provide immediate access to any and all sites of importance to the investigation and to ensure security for the U.N. investigative team."