Relatives and activists inspect the bodies of people they say were killed by nerve gas in the Ghouta region, in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus August 21, 2013. Image Credit: AP

Beirut: Syrian regime forces fired intense artillery and rocket barrages on Wednesday on the eastern suburbs of Damascus amid a fierce government offensive in what two pro-opposition groups claimed was a “toxic gas” attack that killed at least 1,300 people, including many children.

A 20-member UN chemical weapons team is currently in Syria to investigate three sites where chemical weapons attacks allegedly occurred over the past year.

Russia called Syrian opposition claims a “premeditated provocation.”  The foreign ministry stressed that the reports were issued just as a UN chemical weapons inspection team had arrived in Syria and noted that “this makes us think that we are once again dealing with a premeditated provocation.”

The heavy shelling early yesterday pounded the capital’s eastern suburbs of Zamalka, Arbeen and Ain Tarma, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. Syria officially denied the attack.

Mohammad Saeed, an activist in the area, told The Associated Press via Skype that hundreds of dead and injured people were rushed to six makeshift hospitals in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. “This is a massacre by chemical weapons,” said Saeed.

“The visit by the UN team is a joke ... Bashar is using the weapons and telling the world that he does not care.” An amateur video showed four children on the floor of a makeshift hospital, appearing to be unconscious as a doctor is seen giving them some sort of shots.

Most serious

A bit later, a child starts shaking slowly. “Is this baby girl a terrorist,” a man could be heard saying. “God willing, we will bring his regime down. He (Al Assad) is killing Sunni children in front of the whole world.”

The claim of the chemical attack, if confirmed, would be the most serious since the March 19 incident in Khan Al Assal when at least 30 people were killed. Al Assad’s regime and the rebels have blamed each other for that attack. Unrest in Syria began in March 2011. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict.