Thousands of people suffered neurotoxic symptoms and 355 of them died following an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syrian capital Damascus, aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has said.
A total of 3,600 victims flooded three hospitals within hours of the reported attack on the al-Ghouta suburb on Wednesday, said Medecins Sans Frontieres director of operations Bart Janssens, adding that the symptoms the victims experienced "strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent".
"MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause ... nor establish who is responsible," Janssens said on Saturday. "However, the reported symptoms, the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers, strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent."
His statement came as the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Angela Kane, arrived in Damascus to push for UN inspectors to be granted access to the attack site. The inspectors themselves arrived on a mission to investigate older claims of the use of chemical weapons just days before the attack.
Rebel groups in Syria have blamed the attack on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The regime denies responsibility but has so far not allowed UN inspectors into the attack site.
On Saturday evening, state television claimed regime forces had seized "highly toxic and chemical agents" stored by rebels in the Jobar area. It did not provide video evidence.
The developments came as Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president, acknowledged for the first time that chemical weapons had killed people in Syria and called on the international community to prevent their use.
He stopped short of saying who he believed had used them.
Iran, a close ally of the Syrian regime, has previously accused the rebels in the country of being behind what it called suspected chemical attacks.
"Many of the innocent people of Syria have been injured and martyred by chemical agents and this is unfortunate," Rouhani was quoted as saying by Iran's ISNA news agency.
"We completely and strongly condemn the use of chemical weapons."
Appeal to international community
Mehr, another Iranian news agency, quoted Rouhani as saying: "The Islamic Republic gives notice to the international community to use all its might to prevent the use of these weapons anywhere in the world, especially in Syria."
|Mark Kimmitt, former deputy director of plans and strategy at US Central Command, talks to Al Jazeera on the claims of use of chemical weapons in Syria
Footage shot by an independent journalist for Britain's ITV News appears to show the victims of the incident.
In a separate development on Saturday, a rocket attack killed five people in Damascus, the Syrian state news agency reported, adding that the shell landed in the Burj Al Rous district in the old part of Damascus.
The attack destroyed many cars and damaged nearby property.
Also on Saturday, the president of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) called on world leaders to act firmly against Damascus.
Ahmad al-Jarba said that the Syrian government was responsible for "crime of genocide" and it was time for world leaders to be serious and firm and interfere "by all means" against the Syrian president.
Against this backdrop of escalating Syria-related tensions, the US navy is reported to be expanding its presence in the Mediterranean Sea with a fourth cruise-missile warship.