Syria progress encouraging: Arms experts

2013-10-04 09:01
A UN vehicle is seen near the Masnaa border crossing on the Lebanon-Syria border as UN inspectors return to Syria. (STR, AFP)

A UN vehicle is seen near the Masnaa border crossing on the Lebanon-Syria border as UN inspectors return to Syria. (STR, AFP)

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Damascus - International experts preparing to destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal said they had made "encouraging" progress on Thursday and expect to carry out on-site inspections within days.

UN Security Council Resolution 2118 was passed after gas attacks outside Damascus killed hundreds in August, an atrocity that prompted the United States to threaten military strikes on Syria and later led to a rare US-Russian disarmament accord.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations said the inspectors, who arrived on Tuesday, had made "encouraging initial progress" following a day of meetings with Syrian authorities.

"Documents handed over yesterday by the Syrian government look promising, according to team members, but further analysis, particularly of technical diagrams, will be necessary and some more questions remain to be answered," it said.

The team said it hopes to begin on-site inspections and the initial disabling of equipment "within the next week".

Nine experts, part of a 19-member team from The Hague-based OPCW, earlier left their Damascus hotel in three cars, heading for an unknown destination.

Humanitarian access

The team faces a daunting task, as President Bashar Assad's government is understood to have more than 1 000 tonnes of the nerve agent sarin, mustard gas and other banned weapons stored at dozens of sites.

Their immediate aim is to disable production sites by late October or early November using "expedient methods" including explosives, sledgehammers and pouring concrete, an OPCW official said.

It is the first mission in the organisation's history to be undertaken in a country embroiled in a civil war.

A popular uprising that began in March 2011 in Syria has snowballed into a full-blown conflict that has claimed more than 115 000 lives, forced millions to flee, and trapped hundreds of thousands in besieged towns and neighbourhoods.

On Wednesday, the Security Council demanded immediate and "unhindered" access to the trapped civilians, in a non-binding statement that diplomats said sends a strong signal to Damascus.

UN aid agencies say there are more than 2.1 million refugees and nearly another six million people displaced inside Syria, adding that they have not had access to about two million trapped civilians for months.

The statement says there should be "unhindered humanitarian access" across the conflict lines "and, where appropriate, across borders from neighbouring countries".

Syria has blocked aid missions from those nations, saying supplies will go to rebels.

Since the beginning of the uprising, the council had been deadlocked over Syria, as Russia defended the Assad regime, and last week's arms resolution and Wednesday statement are a breakthrough that helped avert potential US and French military action against Assad's regime.

On Thursday, Washington said it will allow non-essential staff to return to its embassy in Beirut, which was partially evacuated in September when military strikes appeared imminent.

'10 000s detained, tortured'

Human Rights Watch accused Damascus of arbitrarily detaining tens of thousands of people for protesting peacefully, and called for international action to protect them.

Former detainees told the rights group that political prisoners were regularly beaten, raped and shocked with electricity.

The HRW's Joe Stork called on world powers to pressure the government, as well as opposition groups that have also carried out arbitrary detentions, to free their prisoners.

"Those with leverage with the government as well as with opposition forces should press for them to free everyone they are holding unlawfully," he said.

On the ground, fighting raged on several fronts.

Rebels seized the village of Bakar in the southern province of Daraa, as government forces recaptured a strategic northern town after weeks of battles, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The London-based monitoring group said dozens of fighters on both sides died in the battle for Khanasser, which sits on a key supply route between central Syria and the northern city of Aleppo.

Further north, six key rebel factions demanded that an al-Qaeda front group withdraw from the town of Azaz on the border with Turkey.

The groups, all Islamists, issued a joint call for fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to leave the town, as rebels in central Syria urged the group to leave Homs province.

The appeals came amid fresh clashes between Isil and the mainstream rebel Northern Storm brigade in Azaz.

Syria's rebels initially welcomed foreign jihadists but have turned against them in some areas, accusing them of abuses and of imposing on the populace an extreme interpretation of Islam.

Turkey's parliament on Thursday extended for one year a mandate authorising military action against neighbouring Syria if necessary.

Turkey first approved such action shortly after a mortar attack fired from Syria killed five of its civilians in October last year.

Since then, the Turkish military has retaliated in kind for every Syrian shell that has landed on its soil.

Read more on:    un  |  hrw  |  al-qaeda  |  is  |  opcw  |  isil  |  syrian observatory for human rights  |  bashar assad  |  syria  |  syria conflict

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