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There are alarming reports from Syria this morning of a chemical weapons attack near the capital. Syrian opposition activists say government forces have killed hundreds of people in air raids and shelling on rebel neighborhoods close to Damascus and a sizeable number of people, they claim, have died from poison gas. Those claims have not been confirmed and the Syrian government has strongly denied the accusations.

France and Britain have already called for an investigation into the site of the attack by U.N. weapons inspectors. Those weapons inspectors arrived in Syria this week for a general probe of chemical weapons use. To help us follow a story that has few facts that can be confirmed, we've turned to Patrick McDonnell. He's the Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Beirut. Thank you for joining us.

PATRICK MCDONNELL: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Now, again, these reports are unconfirmed but what do exactly the opposition activists say happened?

MCDONNELL: Well, as you said, all of the information is coming at this point from opposition activists and they say there was a rather intense bombardment of some of the outskirts of Damascus, which is kind of a rebel stronghold, in which some kind of poison gas was unleashed and that there were hundreds of people killed. And there's been some strong video out there purporting to show bodies in clinics and elsewhere, many of them women and children.

It's rather shocking. But again, there's no confirmation and the government has basically said it's untrue and propaganda.

MONTAGNE: Well, this is certainly ratcheting up the numbers when they're talking in terms of hundreds of deaths from chemical weapons. What are the factors that would lead you to either believe or doubt these opposition claims?

MCDONNELL: Well, you know, both sides kind of have a claim to make here. From the - certainly the timing would seem odd, when there's a U.N. inspection team that has just arrived there three days ago, for the Assad government to unleash such an attack. Keep in mind that the Syrian government initially called for the U.N. investigation and the investigation has been strongly supported by Russia, a major ally of Assad.

So for him to do this at this point would be odd timing indeed. On the other hand, the opposition says that the government has shown this kind of callousness from the outset and it doesn't surprise them.

MONTAGNE: Now, the opposition, besides these photographs, which, as you say, are disturbing and their claims, is there any other part of what they're doing that would make it clearer?

MCDONNELL: I think it's all very murky in this situation. I don't think there is anything that really is clear. I mean there were doctors who are related to the opposition who have spoken about this, said they've treated people with these symptoms that appear to be chemical weapons symptoms. But again, it's all from one side and it's all very murky.

And the fact that there's a U.N. investigative team there, maybe this'll be one instance in which there could be an actual investigation of an alleged massacre in Syria. We haven't seen many independent investigations.

MONTAGNE: Well, is there something that the U.N. weapons inspectors in Syria right now could do to get a reading quickly on this?

MCDONNELL: I think theoretically they could do it. They're there with a limited mandate to look at three incidents that happened some months ago. And my understanding is in order to change the mandate and investigate this incident, a member nation of the U.N. would have to call for it. And several nations, I think, have already said they intend to do that. So this could end up being an investigation of a fresh allegation of chemical weapons use in Syria.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us, and there's obviously more to come on this story.

MCDONNELL: My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: That's L.A. Times Beirut bureau chief Patrick McDonnell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Sandhya Dirks arrived in Iowa in January of 2012 as a general assignment reporter. Since coming to Des Moines she has covered the Statehouse and traveled across Iowa to bring back stories for IPR. Sandhya was previously a reporter at KALW in San Francisco, covering education and criminal justice issues. Her work was awarded a SPJ Sigma Delta Chi and a regional Edward R. Murrow award.