Syria's deputy prime minister has said that foreign fighters and their international backers are to blame for a purported chemical weapons attack near Damascus that the opposition says killed at least 100 people, the deadliest such attack in Syria's civil war.
minister Qadri Jamil's comments were part of a government campaign to use the horror over the deaths to boost its narrative about the conflict - that Syria is under assault by foreign Islamic radicals.
Rebels blamed the attack on the Syrian military, saying toxic chemicals were used in artillery barrages on the area known as eastern Ghouta on Wednesday. Jamil did not directly acknowledge that toxic gas was used against the eastern suburbs but denied allegations by anti-government activists that President Bashar Assad's forces were behind the assault.
The murky nature of the purported attacks, and the difficulty of gaining access to the sites amid the carnage of Syria's war and government restrictions on foreign media, has made it impossible to verify the claims.
Jamil said he was personally in favor of a fair, transparent international delegation to investigate the incident in Ghouta. But he said this requires a new agreement between the government and the UN and that the conditions for such a delegation would need to be studied.
"We don't want to be like Iraq, opening our territory up to all sorts of investigators, going through our homes and bedrooms. Syria is a sovereign nation and will preserve its sovereignty," he told the AP in an interview.
Jamil said foreign militants carried out the attack with the backing of Israel and supporters in the West in a bid to thwart efforts to hold an international peace conference to end the Syrian bloodshed.
"We can only say that extremist forces carried it out, linked to foreign forces, since no Syrian can do this against another Syrian," he said. "At the head of these forces are those who have promoted vengeance and hatred and spoke of ousting the regime by force over the past two years."
The main state television news channel aired a documentary-style segment showing the pictures of the children's bodies lined up in their shrouds.
"This is the brutality of the terrorists and those who have destructive plans for Syria," a voiceover intoned. "They trade in the lives of children, they use chemical weapons."
The segment included an explanation of sarin gas, with diagrams of its effects on the body, though it didn't directly claim that sarin was used in Wednesday's attack.
Jamil estimated there were now 30,000 to 40,000 foreign fighters on Syrian soil from 70 countries.
"There are forces that have lost their minds and are using the most extreme weapons in their hands to prevent the international conference. They're in a state of insanity, they have lost their senses. It's a political attack as much as it's a chemical attack," he said.
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