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Syria: U.N. to investigate allegations of government chlorine attacks

The announcement comes amid two car bomb explosions and deadly mortar strikes in Homs and Damascus

The international group monitoring the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons said Tuesday that the Syrian government has agreed to submit to an investigation into recent allegations about the use of chlorine gas during the country's three-year-old civil war.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said in a statement that Damascus has agreed to allow a mission to enter Syria, and will provide security in areas under government control. The team is expected to depart for Syria soon, the statement said.

Syrian opposition forces have accused the government of attacking rebel-held areas with chlorine gas several times in recent months. Damascus denies the allegations.

A joint U.N.-OPCW mission is already in the process of eliminating Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. It has removed more than 90 percent of Syria's declared toxic chemicals.

While chlorine was first deployed militarily in World War I, it is no longer officially considered a warfare agent and was not among the chemicals declared by Syria when it joined the chemical weapons treaty in October.

The announcement arrived on the heels of a new report that accused the Syrian government of continuing to kill civilians living in rebel-held areas by indiscriminately dropping barrel bombs despite a U.N. resolution two months ago that called on government forces and rebels to curb bombing and shelling of residential areas.

The report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), released Tuesday, documented 85 separate attacks by the Syrian government on residential areas “including two government barrel bomb attacks on clearly marked official hospitals.”

Deadly blasts

Meanwhile, two car bomb explosions rocked the city of Homs on Tuesday, killing nearly 40 people. The explosions took place in a pro-government neighborhood, and came just hours after one of the deadliest mortar strikes yet in the heart of the capital, Damascus, killed 14, officials and state media said.

Tuesday’s violence came a day after President Bashar al-Assad officially declared his candidacy for the June 3 presidential elections, a race he is likely to win amid a raging civil war that initially started as peaceful protests against his rule. Such attacks are common in Homs and Damascus, and there was no immediate indication that Tuesday's violence was related to Assad's announcement.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 37 people, including five children, were killed and that more than 80 were wounded in the double car bombing in Homs.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the Homs and Damascus attacks.

SANA blamed the attacks on “terrorists” — a term used by Assad's government to describe rebels. Armed groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra have previously claimed responsibility for similar attacks.

Homs has been the opposition stronghold since the beginning of the uprising against Assad that erupted in March 2011. The city, Syria's third largest, has been the scene of some of the war’s fiercest fighting. The conflict has left more than 150,000 people dead, and forced another 2.5 million to flee the country.

Upcoming elections

In addition to Assad, four more presidential hopefuls declared their candidacy Tuesday in the upcoming election, bringing the total number of registered contenders to 11, state TV said.

Syria's opposition and its Western backers have criticized the decision to hold presidential elections while the country is engulfed in war.

Syria's Foreign Ministry rejected the criticism, saying the decision was "sovereign" and warned that "no foreign power will be allowed to intervene" in the process.

In Tehran, meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham welcomed the elections, saying the vote will be "an opportunity for peace and stability" in Syria.

Iran has backed Assad throughout the conflict, providing his government with millions of dollars in economic aid and military support through its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

"We think the election is a step closer to ending the crisis, stopping the war and support for peace and stability in Syria," Afkham said.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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