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US says Syria attack killed 1,429

The US has bluntly accused the Syrian government of Bashar Assad of launching a chemical weapons attack that killed at least 1,429 people - far more than previous estimates - including more than 400 children.

"Some cite the risk of doing things but we need to ask what is the risk of doing nothing," said Secretary of State John Kerry in a speech that acknowledged that Americans at home and US allies abroad are weary of war.

Halfway around the world, UN personnel carried out a fourth day of inspection as they sought to determine precisely what happened in the attack last week. Video said to be taken at the scene show victims writhing in pain, twitching and exhibiting other symptoms associated with exposure to nerve agents.

The international contingent arranged to depart Syria on Saturday and head to laboratories in Europe with the samples they have collected.

Residents of Damascus stocked up on food and other necessities in anticipation of strikes, although no signs of panic or shortages were evident.

"We got used to the sound of shelling" after three years of civil war, said Kheireddine Nahleh, a 53-year-old government employee. "Death is the same, be it with a mortar or with an American missile. I'm not afraid."

US president Barack Obama met with his national security aides at the White House as aides insisted he has not yet made a decision to attack military facilities belonging to the Syrian government. Even so, the administration did nothing to discourage the predictions that he would - and soon.

"Our approach is to continue to find an international coalition that will act together," said defence secretary Chuck Hagel, on a trip to the Philippines.

US warships were in place in the Mediterranean Sea armed with cruise missiles, long a first-line weapon of choice for presidents because they can find a target hundreds of miles distant without need of air cover or troops on the ground.

The looming confrontation is the latest outgrowth of a civil war in which Assad has tenaciously - and brutally - clung to power. An estimated 100,000 civilians have been killed in more than two years, many of them as a result of attacks by the Syrian government on its own citizens.

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