The US president has met with security advisers to review options after the deadly chemical attack in Syria. A fourth US warship armed with ballistic missiles has been reportedly sent into the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
President Barack Obama has met with his national security team to discuss the deadly chemical attack in Syria which has left 355 people dead.
Obama received a detailed review of the range of options for how the US and its international partners could respond if intelligence agencies conclude that Syrian President Bashar al Assad engaged in deadly chemical warfare, the White House said on Saturday.
"In coordination with international partners and mindful of the dozens of contemporaneous witness accounts and record of the symptoms of those killed, the US intelligence community continues to gather facts to ascertain what occurred," the White House said after Obama's meeting, which included Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said on Saturday that three hospitals near Damascus had reported 355 deaths in the space of three hours on Wednesday out of about 3,600 admissions with nerve gas-type symptoms.
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Angela Kane arrived in Damascus on Saturday to seek access for inspectors to the site of last Wednesday's attack. A team of UN inspectors is already in Damascus with government permission to inspect other sites of suspected chemical attacks.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said during a visit to the Palestinian territories: "The solution is obvious. There is a United Nations team on the ground, just a few kilometers away. It must very quickly be allowed to go to the site to carry out the necessary tests without hindrance."
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Berlin expected Syria's ally Russia to "raise the pressure on Damascus so that the inspectors can independently investigate."
The Syrian government has accused rebels of staging the attack to provoke intervention. State television said on Saturday that soldiers had found chemical weapons in tunnels that had been used by rebels, with video footage of five blue and green plastic storage drums and vials labeled "atropine", a nerve gas antidote, were proof that rebels had used chemical weapons.
The Syria state news agency SANA reported that soldiers had "suffered from cases of suffocation" when rebels used poison gas "as a last resort" after government forces made "big gains" against them in the Damascus suburb of Jobar. The leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, and the head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, General Salim Idriss, denied on Saturday that rebels had used chemical weapons.
While Obama has been reluctant to intervene in Syria, he said during a television interview on Friday that the use of chemical weapons on a large scale would start "getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region."
Among the military options under consideration are missile strikes on Syrian units believed to be responsible for chemical attacks or on Assad's air force and ballistic missile sites, US officials said. The strikes could be launched from US ships or from combat aircraft capable of firing missiles from outside Syrian airspace, thereby avoiding Syrian air defenses.
US defense officials told The Associated Press news agency that the Navy had sent a fourth warship armed with ballistic missiles into the eastern Mediterranean Sea but without immediate orders for any missile launch into Syria.
US and UK
Also on Saturday, Obama discussed the situation with British Prime Minister David Cameron. After the meeting, a spokesman for Cameron said: "They are both gravely concerned by the attack that took place in Damascus on Wednesday and the increasing signs that this was a significant chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime against its own people."
A conference of military chiefs from the US, Jordan, its main western allies and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar had already been scheduled to start on Sunday, to discuss how to help contain the fallout of the conflict beyond Syria's borders.
jm/ccp (Reuters, AP, AFP)