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Syrian 'gas' death toll tops 100

Syrian activists have claimed a government poison gas attack killed at least 100 people, including many children, in Damascus.

The attack coincided with the visit by a 20-member UN team to Syria to investigate three sites where chemical weapons attacks allegedly occurred during the past year. Their presence raises questions about why the regime - which called the claims of the attack "absolutely baseless" - would use chemical agents at this time.

Shocking images emerged from the purported attack, showing lifeless bodies of children lined up on floors of makeshift hospitals and others with oxygen masks on their faces as they were attended to by paramedics.

The reported death toll would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria's civil war. There were conflicting reports, however, as to what exactly happened. Syria's Information Minister called the activists' claim a "disillusioned and fabricated one whose objective is to deviate and mislead" the UN mission.

France's president Francois Hollande demanded the United Nations be granted access to the site of the alleged attack, while Britain's foreign secretary William Hague said if the claims are verified it would mark "a shocking escalation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria."

The Egypt-based Arab League condemned the "horrific attack" against civilians and called for an investigation.

Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Britaish-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said said "poisonous gas" was fired in rockets as well as from the air at the capital's eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ein Tarma. He said that he has documented at least 100 deaths, but said it was not clear whether the victims died from shelling or toxic gas.

Syria is said to have one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin. The government refuses to confirm or deny it possesses such weapons.

The head of the UN team in Syria to investigate previous claims of alleged chemical attacks said he wants to look into the latest claims. Ake Sellstrom said the high numbers of killed and wounded being reported "sound suspicious." He said a formal request from a member state would have to go through UN channels and Syria would need to agree - and there is no guarantee that it would.

The EU's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, said the accusations should be immediately and thoroughly investigated. "The mission must be allowed full and unhindered access to all sites on the Syrian territory according to its requirements," her office said in a statement. Germany and Turkey also called for immediate UN access to the site of the alleged attack.

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