Syria will let inspectors go to site of suspected chemical weapons attack, official says

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[Breaking news update 8:38 a.m. ET]

Syria has agreed to allow weapons inspectors full access to any site of a purported chemical weapons attack, effective immediately, Syria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad tells CNN’s Fred Pleitgen.

[Previous story published 5:36 a.m. ET]

As Western powers try to verify claims that Syria deployed chemical weapons last week in a Damascus suburb, the government is pointing the finger at rebel forces.

They are pointing it back, accusing the government of gassing hundreds of people to death.

United Nations inspectors in Syria, attempting to gather information, say that Syria has not permitted them to visit the site of the attack.

In the meantime, the Pentagon has sent four warships armed with cruise missiles to the region.

But an Iranian military official warned the United States on Sunday against crossing the “red line” on Syria.

Massoud Jazayeri, a deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, said it would have “severe consequences,” according to the semiofficial Fars news agency.

Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama said “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

Government denial

According to Syrian state-run television’s depiction of events, government forces came across the site of the gas attack when they entered the rebel stronghold of Jobar on the edge of Damascus. The bodies of some of those killed in the attack early Wednesday had been found there.

Several of the soldiers were “suffocating” from exposure to gases as they entered the city, according to state TV.

“It is believed that the terrorists have used chemical weapons in the area,” Syrian TV reported, citing an anonymous source. The government uses the term “terrorists” to describe rebel forces.

Broadcast video showed a room containing gas masks, gas canisters and other paraphernalia that could be used in a gas attack. The army said it uncovered the cache in a storage facility in Jobar. CNN could not independently confirm the authenticity of the video.

The Syrian government has steadfastly denied its forces used chemical weapons outside Damascus or elsewhere and repeated the denial Saturday.

“We said it from the first moment and, here, we assure again that we have never used chemical weapons (around Jobar) or any other region in any form whatsoever — … liquid, gas or whatever,” said information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said in an interview on Lebanese television.

He blamed the rebels.

Opposition accusations

They say that government forces fired rockets into the heavily populated civilian area. Opposition spokesman Badr Jamous from the Syrian National Coalition claimed that some of the rockets delivered chemical payloads.

More than 1,300 people were killed, most of them by gas, said Khaled al-Saleh, another spokesman for the group.

Al-Saleh said that medical teams in the affected area had administered 25,000 shots of atropine — a medication used to treat people exposed to the nerve gas sarin — after the attack.

Video showed rows of bodies without apparent injury, as well as people suffering convulsions or who appeared to be struggling to breathe.

CNN could not verify where or when the videos were recorded, and could not confirm the number of casualties.

Doctor assessments

Adding weight to the assertions that chemical weapons were used was a statement Saturday by Doctors Without Borders.

Three hospitals — all supported by the international organization — in Syria’s Damascus governorate reported having received some 3,600 patients displaying neurotoxic symptoms last Wednesday morning, the statement said.

Of them, 355 reportedly died, it said.

Medical staff told the aid organization that many patients arrived with symptoms such as convulsions, excess saliva, pinpoint pupils, blurred vision and respiratory distress, said director of operations Dr. Bart Janssens.

Patients were treated with atropine.

“The reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events — characterized by 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,” Janssens said.

Speedy response

If the claims that Syria used chemical weapons are true, a speedy response will be needed to prevent another such attack, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday.

The defense chief said the American military was positioning assets to provide Obama with options, but did not specify what those options might include.

The Navy destroyer USS Ramage has arrived in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, a defense official said late Friday. It joins the USS Mahan, the USS Gravelly and the USS Barry.

All four are equipped with cruise missiles.

A senior Defense Department official told CNN that military planners have updated Syrian target lists. These could include al-Assad’s capability to deliver chemical weapons but also government buildings.

The president has said he does not anticipate using ground forces in Syria.

Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said he is in contact with the Syrian government.

“They have reassured us that they had never used such inhumane weapons and would cooperate with the U.N. experts to visit the area hit by chemical weapons,” he said in a statement posted on the ministry website.

U.N. pressure

The U.N.’s high representative for disarmament affairs Angela Kane arrived in Damascus Saturday to push the government to cooperate with the team already on the ground.

U.N. inspectors want to reach the site of the alleged chemical weapons attack quickly in order to gather evidence, while it is still fresh, but the Syrian government has refused to let them through.

They fear remnants of any chemicals used may deteriorate, if they wait too long.