Official: US looking into Syria toxic gas reports

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, speaking during a meeting with teachers and higher education students from Damascus University, in Damascus, Syria, Sunday, April 13, 2014. Assad said that there is a "turning point" in the crisis on the military front and with the continuous achievements of the army in the war against "terrorism." (AP Photo/SANA)


DAMASCUS, Syria — The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said Sunday that reports of a poison gas attack in a rural village north of Damascus were so far “unsubstantiated,” adding that the United States was trying to establish what really happened before it considers a response.

Both sides in Syria’s civil war blamed each other for the alleged attack that reportedly injured scores of people Friday amid an ongoing international effort to rid the country of chemical weapons.

The details of what happened in Kfar Zeita, an opposition-held village in Hama province some 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Damascus, remain murky. Online videos posted by rebel activists showed pale-faced men, women and children gasping for breath at what appeared to be a field hospital. They suggested an affliction by some kind of poison — and yet another clouded incident where both sides blame each other in a conflict that activists say has killed more than 150,000 people with no end in sight.

“We are trying to run this down,” said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, during an appearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

“So far it’s unsubstantiated, but we’ve shown, I think, in the past that we will do everything in our power to establish what has happened and then consider possible steps in response,” she said.

In the Syrian capital, Syrian President Bashar Assad said the conflict in Syria was shifting in the government’s favor.

“This is a turning point in the crisis, both militarily in terms of the army’s continuous achievements in the war against terror or socially in terms of national reconciliation and growing awareness of the true aims of the attack on the country,” state-run Syrian television quoted Assad as saying. He spoke to a group of students and teachers from Damascus University.

His comments follow a string of government triumphs against rebels, particularly around the Syrian capital. Assad’s forces also have struck local cease-fire agreements with the opposition in a number of neighborhoods, where weary rebels have turned over their weapons in exchange for an easing of suffocating blockades.

Opposition groups, including the main Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, said the poison gas attack at Kfar Zeita hurt dozens of people, thought it did not identify the gas used. State-run Syrian television blamed members of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front rebel group for the attack, saying they used chlorine gas to kill two people and injured more than 100. It did not say how it confirmed chlorine was used.

Chlorine, one of the most commonly manufactured chemicals in the U.S., is used to purify drinking water. But as a gas, it can be deadly.

Adham Raadoun, an opposition activist on the edge of Kfar Zeita, said government helicopters dropped a number of barrel bombs on the village that appeared to carry the toxic gas, killing one person and choking about 100 people, many of them in their homes.

Quoting eyewitnesses, Raadoun said the gas had a thick, yellowish color that smelled of chlorine.

The videos documenting the attack were reminiscent — albeit on a much smaller scale — of an Aug. 21 chemical attack near the capital, Damascus, that killed hundreds of people.