Syria chemical weapons inspections to start by Tuesday

AFP , Friday 27 Sep 2013

OPCW chemical weapons deal biggest diplomatic achievement in Syria after more than two years of bitter civil war

International inspectors will get to work eradicating Syria's chemical arsenal by next week, once the world's chemical weapons watchdog approves a US-Russian roadmap drawn up to avert military strikes.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' (OPCW) Executive Council will meet at 2000 GMT in The Hague to discuss the draft, which will be incorporated in a UN Security Council resolution expected to be passed swiftly afterwards.

The chemical weapons deal is the biggest diplomatic achievement on Syria after more than two years of a bitter civil war that the UN says has killed more than 100,000 people.

Fresh violence erupted in Syria on Friday, with a car bomb outside a mosque killing at least 30 people in Rankus, a Sunni town north of Damascus that backs the Sunni--dominated opposition to the government, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Despite the diplomatic headway, the opposition to President Bashar Al-Assad's regime remains divided.

The head of the key opposition National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, denounced extremists he said were trying to "steal our revolution," and blamed the regime for supporting them.

"The phenomenon of extremism appeared with the support and planning of the regime, which has gambled on the transformation of a revolution for freedom into a civil and sectarian war," he told representatives from the Friends of Syria in New York.

"Other groups have come across the borders to steal our revolution."

An unknown number of foreign fighters has streamed into Syria to join jihadist rebel groups such as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons as part of a US-Russian agreement struck earlier this month, worked out as Washington threatened military action in response to an August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus it blamed on President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The 41-member OPCW Executive Council usually takes decisions by consensus, or they require a two-thirds majority vote to pass.

Council members are mainly national ambassadors posted to The Hague.

Besides weapons locations declared by Damascus as part of the Russia-US deal, inspectors will also be able to visit "any other site identified by a State Party as having been involved in the Syrian chemical weapons programme," says the draft document seen by AFP.

It also says the OPCW will start inspections no later than October 1.

Syria is reported to have around 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, including 300 metric tons of sulphur mustard.

In case of non-compliance with the plan, which sees all Syrian chemical weapons and facilities destroyed by mid-2014, the OPCW will discuss the allegation and then take it to the UN Security Council and General Assembly.

The OPCW Executive Council is to decide on "intermediate destruction milestones" by November 15, it says, calling also on Syria to provide "immediate and unfettered right to inspect any and all sites."

Damascus is also required to designate a liaison official for the OPCW with the authority to ensure the disarmament mission is completed.

Friday's OPCW meeting comes after the US and Russia on Thursday agreed a draft UN Security Council resolution on Syria's chemical weapons, breaking a prolonged deadlock.

The UN text says that in case of Syrian non-compliance, the Security Council will impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Chapter VII can allow sanctions or military force. But there would have to be a new vote and diplomats predicted tough talks to persuade Russia, a key Assad ally, not to use its veto again.

Damascus has signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which the OPCW enforces, and Syria will officially join the body on October 14.

The OPCW document called on member countries "to provide voluntary contributions" to finance the mission, which Assad has said could cost $1 billion.

The UN has a separate mission currently in Syria to probe alleged chemical weapons attacks other than the August 21 attack on Ghouta, outside Damascus.

The UN said on Friday that the mission was probing at least two attacks that took place after Ghouta.

It said it would finish its work on the ground on Monday, hoping to produce a comprehensive report on its finding by late October.

In Geneva, the UN's top human rights body on Friday condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

The 47-member Human Rights Council overwhelmingly voted in favour of a resolution that "strongly condemns the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which is prohibited under international law, amounts to a serious crime and has a devastating impact on civilians."

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