BEIRUT/AMMAN Syria's opposition accused government forces of gassing hundreds of people on Wednesday by firing rockets that released deadly fumes over rebel-held Damascus suburbs, killing men, women and children as they slept.
With the dead estimated between 500 and 1,300, what would be the world's most lethal chemical weapons attack since the 1980s prompted an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council in New York.
Immediate international action is likely to be limited, with the divisions among major powers that have crippled efforts to quell two and a half years of civil war still much in evidence.
Russia backed up denials from the administration of President Bashar al-Assad by saying it looked like a rebel "provocation" to discredit him.
Britain voiced the opposite view: "I hope this will wake up some who have supported the Assad regime to realise its murderous and barbaric nature," Foreign Secretary William Hague said on a visit to Paris.
France, Britain, the United States and others called for an immediate on-site investigation by U.N. chemical weapons inspectors who arrived in the Syrian capital only this week. Moscow, urging an "objective" inquiry, said the very presence of that team suggested government forces were not to blame.
U.S. President Barack Obama has made the use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces a "red line" that in June triggered more U.S. aid to the rebels. But previous, smaller and disputed cases of their deployment have not brought the all-out military intervention rebel leaders have sought to break a stalemate.
U.S. Senator John McCain, a Republican critic of Obama's Syria policy, said on Twitter that failure to penalise previous gas attacks had emboldened Assad: "No consequence for Assad using chemical weapons & crossing red line," he said. "We shouldn't be surprised he's using them again."
The Security Council, where Russia has vetoed previous Western efforts to impose U.N. penalties on Assad, began a closed-door meeting but is not expected to take decisive action, with the big powers still at loggerheads.
Images, including some by freelance photographers supplied to Reuters, showed scores of bodies - some of them small children - laid on the floor of a clinic with no visible signs of injury. Some showed people with foam around their mouths.
The United States and others said it had no independent confirmation that chemical weapons had been used. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said the head of the inspection team in Damascus was already discussing the latest claims with the government.
Opposition activists cited death tolls ranging from about 500 to, by one account, some 1,300 after shells and rockets fell around 3 a.m. (0000 GMT) on Wednesday. In 1988, 3,000 to 5,000 Iraqi Kurds were gassed by Saddam Hussein's forces at Halabja.
One man who said he had retrieved victims in the suburb of Erbin told Reuters: "We would go into a house and everything was in its place. Every person was in their place. They were lying where they had been. They looked like they were asleep."
Doctors interviewed described symptoms they believe point to sarin gas, one of the agents Western powers accuse Damascus of having in an undeclared chemical weapons stockpile.
Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi said the allegations were "illogical and fabricated". Assad's officials have said they would never use poison gas against Syrians. The United States and European allies believe Assad's forces have used small amounts of sarin before, hence the current U.N. visit.
An opposition monitoring group, citing figures compiled from clinics in the Damascus suburbs, put the death toll at 494 - 90 percent killed by gas, the rest by bombs and conventional arms. The rebel Syrian National Coalition said 650 people died.
Activists said rockets with chemical agents hit the Damascus suburbs of Ain Tarma, Zamalka and Jobar during a fierce pre-dawn bombardment by government forces. The Damascus Media Office said 150 bodies were counted in Hammouriya, 100 in Kfar Batna, 67 in Saqba, 61 in Douma, 76 in Mouadamiya and 40 in Erbin.
A nurse at Douma Emergency Collection facility, Bayan Baker, said: "Many of the casualties are women and children. They arrived with their pupils constricted, cold limbs and foam in their mouths. The doctors say these are typical symptoms of nerve gas victims."
Extensive amateur video and photographs appeared on the Internet showing victims choking, some foaming at the mouth.
A video purportedly shot in the Kafr Batna neighbourhood showed a room filled with more than 90 bodies, many of them children and a few women and elderly men. Most of the bodies appeared ashen or pale but with no visible injuries.
Other footage showed doctors treating people in makeshift clinics. One video showed the bodies of a dozen people lying on the floor of a clinic. A voiceover said they were members of a single family. In a corridor outside lay another five bodies.
Syria is one of just a handful of countries that are not parties to the international treaty that bans chemical weapons, and Western nations believe it has caches of undeclared mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve agents.
(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, Niklas Pollard in Stockholm and Thomas Grove in Moscow; Writing by Peter Graff, Dominic Evans and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Will Waterman)