x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Chemical weapons team arrives in Damascus

Disarmament team arrives in Damascus to begin cataloguing the country's arsenal of chemical weapons.

DAMASCUS // A disarmament team arrived in the Syrian capital Damascus yesterday to begin the daunting task of cataloguing the country’s chemical weapons arsenal before destroying it.

The inspectors from The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) travelled by road from Lebanon a day after UN experts departed after probing a series of alleged chemical attacks.

The inspectors’ arrival came as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights released a new toll in the conflict, saying more than 115,000 people had been killed since March 2011.

The first group of 20 OPCW inspectors is in Syria to implement a UN resolution ordering the elimination of Syria’s arsenal by mid-2014.

The arsenal is believed to include more than 1,000 tonnes of sarin, mustard gas and other banned chemicals stored at an estimated 45 sites across the country.

The OPCW said the inspectors – all volunteers – were to meet Syrian government officials late yesterday before setting off to work.

The mission is the first in OPCW history to take place in a country embroiled by civil war, and the inspectors are to check a list of sites provided by the Damascus regime and conduct on-the-spot testing.

The UN team that left Damascus on Monday probed seven alleged gas attacks and hopes to present a final report by late October.

Earlier this month, it submitted an interim report that confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin in August 21 attacks on the outskirts of Damascus.

The United States threatened military action in response, accusing forces loyal to Assad of deliberately killing hundreds of civilians with rocket-delivered nerve agents.

Syria denied the allegations but agreed to relinquish its chemical arsenal, effectively heading off a strike, under a US-Russian deal enshrined in landmark UN Security Council resolution 2118.

Syria has already submitted detailed accounting of its chemical arsenal and president Bashar Al Assad told Italian television his government “will comply” with the terms of the resolution.

The OPCW inspectors who arrived on Tuesday at a five-star Damascus hotel from Lebanon in a 20-vehicle UN convoy, will give priority to chemical weapons production sites which are to be disabled by late October or early November.

“Expedient methods” will be used to render these production facilities unusable, said an OPCW official.

The UN resolution also calls for the convening of a much-delayed peace conference in Geneva as soon as possible, but the prospects for such a conference remain uncertain.

Syria’s information minister Omran Al Zohbi yesterday insisted that Mr Assad would stay in office and that he had the option to run for another term in elections next year, but the opposition insists his departure must be a pillar of any peace deal.

* Agence France-Presse