Syria starts chemical disarmament

Syria won foreign praise for starting to destroy its chemical arsenal, although an opposition activist said the world was merely giving President Bashar al-Assad time to kill more people with conventional weapons.

An official from the international mission overseeing the stockpile's elimination said Damascus had made an excellent start on October 6, and the United States acknowledged its rapid compliance with a UN resolution on destroying chemical weapons as significant.

Chemicals experts were overseeing a second day of work on October 7, with Syrian forces using cutting torches and grinders to render missile warheads, bombs and mixing equipment unusable.

However, he noted that this was only the start of work that is due to last until mid-2014. "It was an excellent first day, with the stress on the word 'first'," the official told Reuters.

Assad's government, fighting a civil war in which more than 100,000 people have died, agreed to destroy the chemical weapons after a sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus killed hundreds of people in August.

Experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), supported by the United Nations, aim to oversee destruction of Syria's chemical weapons production and mixing equipment by November 1, and deal with all chemical weapons' materials by the end of June 2014.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said it was a good beginning and offered rare praise for Assad, a leader Washington insists lost legitimacy when he responded with force to protests against his rule which erupted in March 2011.

"I think it is extremely significant that Sunday, within a week of the resolution being passed, some chemical weapons were already being destroyed," Kerry told a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at an Asia-Pacific summit in Indonesia. "I think it's also credit to the Assad regime for complying rapidly, as they are supposed to. I'm not going to vouch today for what happens months down the road, but it's a good beginning, and we should welcome a good beginning."

Russia, an ally and arms supplier to Damascus, said the progress showed Assad's government was "adhering strictly to the commitments it took upon itself voluntarily".

Meeting deadlines for eliminating the arsenal "depends not only upon the Syrian government", Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich added, urging countries with influence over rebels to press them to cooperate and ensure security for the mission.

Susan Ahmad, an opposition activist in Damascus, said the chemical weapons agreement was a step back, not forward, in resolving the two-and-a-half year crisis. "It is giving Assad more time to kill more people. He is using Scud (missiles) and recruiting fighters," she said.

Kerry said he and Lavrov will meet the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to finalise a date for the peace conference.

Assad's government and the leader of the political opposition in exile have both said they are ready to attend talks, but there is little sign that the differences between them could be bridged. The opposition outside Syria, disowned by a majority of fighters in Syria, insists the talks must focus on removing Assad and installing a transitional government. Syrian officials say the government will not go to Geneva to surrender power to the rebels and Assad has dismissed negotiation with fighters or opponents who support foreign military or political intervention.

The war in Syria has driven 2.1 million refugees to seek shelter in neighbouring countries, according to the United Nations which predicts another million will join them by the end of the year and a further 2 million next year.

State media and activists said that Assad's soldiers had succeeded in reopening a supply line to the northern city of Aleppo two months after rebels shut it off. - Reuter, October 7, 2013.


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