The U.S. Navy is boosting its presence in the Mediterranean Sea, adding a fourth warship to the region as President Barack Obama and his national security team meet Saturday to discuss possible next steps in Syria.
The meeting comes amid reports that President Bashar al-Assad's government launched a toxic gas attack on the eastern suburbs of Damascus Wednesday with reported death tolls ranging from 136 to 1,300. Even the most conservative tally would make it the deadliest alleged chemical attack in Syria's civil war, now in its third year.
The White House says the U.S. is still seeking confirmation that Syria used chemical weapons. Officials say once the facts are clear, Obama will make a decision about how to respond.
Doctors Without Borders says some 355 people who showed "neurotoxic symptoms" died following the suspected chemical weapons attack. The Paris-based humanitarian aid group said Saturday that three hospitals it supports in the Damascus region reported receiving roughly 3,600 patients who showed such symptoms over less than three hours on Wednesday morning.
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The president emphasized that a quick intervention in the Syrian civil war was problematic, given the international considerations that should precede a military strike.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declined to discuss any specific force movements while saying that Obama had asked the Pentagon to prepare military options for Syria.
U.S. Navy ships are capable of a variety of military action, including launching Tomahawk cruise missiles, as they did against Libya in 2011 as part of an international action that led to the overthrow of the Libyan government.
"The Defense Department has a responsibility to provide the president with options for contingencies, and that requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options — whatever options the president might choose," Hagel told reporters traveling with him to Asia.
The United Nations disarmament chief arrived in the Syrian capital on Saturday to press Assad's regime to allow UN experts to investigate the alleged chemical weapons attack.
Angela Kane, who was dispatched by the UN secretary-general to push for a speedy investigation into Wednesday's purported attack outside the Syrian capital, did not speak to reporters upon her arrival in Damascus.
The U.S., Britain, France and Russia have all urged the Assad regime and the rebels fighting to overthrow him to cooperate with the United Nations and allow UN experts already in Syria to look into the latest purported use of chemical agents.
The Assad regime has denied the claims that it was behind the chemical attack, calling them "absolutely baseless" and suggesting they are an attempt to discredit the government.
Rebel chemical cache found, state TV claims
Syrian state television said soldiers found chemical agents stashed in rebel tunnels in the Damascus suburb of Jobar Saturday.
"Army heroes are entering the tunnels of the terrorists and saw chemical agents," state television quoted a "news source" as saying. "In some cases, soldiers are suffocating while entering Jobar," it said.
"Ambulances came to rescue the people who were suffocating in Jobar," it said, adding that an army unit was preparing to storm the suburb in which rebels fighting to oust Assad are based.
Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday acknowledged for the first time chemical weapons had killed people in ally Syria and called for the international community to prevent their use.
Rouhani stopped short of saying who had used the arms - Tehran has previously accused Syrian rebels of being behind what it called suspected chemical attacks.
"Many of the innocent people of Syria have been injured and martyred by chemical agents and this is unfortunate," recently elected Rouhani was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.
"We completely and strongly condemn the use of chemical weapons," he said, according to the agency.
"The Islamic Republic gives notice to the international community to use all its might to prevent the use of these weapons anywhere in the world, especially in Syria," he added, according to the Mehr news agency.
Syria's Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil told The Associated Press on Thursday that he was personally in favor of a fair, transparent international delegation to investigate the latest incident. But he said that would require a new agreement between the government and the United Nations, and that the conditions for such a delegation would need to be studied.
The UN experts already in Syria are tasked with investigating three earlier purported chemical attacks in the country: one in the village of Khan al-Assal outside the northern city of Aleppo in March, as well as two other locations that have been kept secret for security reasons.
It took months of negotiations between the UN and Damascus before an agreement was struck to allow the 20-member team into Syria to investigate. Its mandate is limited to those three sites, however, and it is only charged with determining whether chemical weapons were used, not who used them.
With files from Reuters