Syria has rejected allegations that it has used chemical weapons on the outskirts of Damascus, pointing out that the alarming claims of heavy casualties by the opposition have been deliberately timed to prejudice the team of U.N. chemical experts that had arrived in the capital.

A spokesman of the Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday the charge that the armed forces had used chemical weapons was “false and untrue”. He added that “these lies and allegations have become well-known to the Syrian government and people, and that the allegations constitute an attempt to prevent the international investigation committee from carrying outs its task and to influence the committee’s report”. Any confirmation of the opposition’s claim of chemical weapons use by the U.N. can further internationalise the situation, and provide legitimacy to a western attack against the government led by President Bashar al-Assad.

He was responding to the wildly fluctuating claims of casualties quoted by a section of the Arab and international media.

The Saudi owned news channel Al Arabiya initially reported on Twitter that 280 people had been killed in the attack, and later escalated the deaths to 1,188, quoting the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA). The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights alleged that dozens, including children, had been killed in the carnage. News agencies such as Reuters and AP said hundreds had died, but added the caveat that these figures could not be independently confirmed.

George Sabra, president of the main opposition Syrian National Council later claimed that 1,300 people had died in the attack, which he said was a “turning point” in the regime’s ongoing military assault.

As the allegations of mass killings in the Ghouta region iinundated television channels, the visiting head of the U.N. team, Ake Sellstorm said he found these claims, “suspicious”.

“It sounds like something that should be looked into,” he told TT news agency on phone. “It will depend on whether any U.N. member state goes to the Secretary-General and says we should look at this event. We are in place.”

Officials pointed out that there was no rationale for using chemical weapons as the army was “winning the battle against the rebels”. Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told Syrian Television that reports about chemical weapons use were “illogical, untrue and completely fabricated”. He asserted that “a political campaign of lies began today, led by some Arab and foreign channels, accompanied by statements from officials in countries known for their hostile stances towards Syria”.

Analysts point out that there may have been heavy casualties caused by conventional weapons as the militants from the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra were under sustained attack by the government forces in the Damascus countryside. Reuters quoted Charles Lister at HIS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center as saying that the “Jabhat al-Nusra has had a long-time presence there and the region has borne the brunt of sustained military pressure for months now”.

In a statement, the Syrian military’s General Command said that allegations of the use of chemical weapons reflected the “hysteria, disorder and breakdown”, of the armed opposition.

Responding to the spate of allegations, the European Union (EU) has demanded a “thorough and immediate” investigation.

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