Syria attack probe wraps up ahead of disarmament mission

AFP , Monday 30 Sep 2013

UN's six-person team of chemical weapons experts says it hopes to present final report on attacks by late October

In this Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013 photo, a Syrian opposition fighter sits in Telata village, a frontline located at the top of a mountain in the Idlib, northwest province countryside of Syria. (AP Photo)

UN experts wrapped up their investigation of seven alleged chemical attacks in Syria Monday as disarmament teams prepared to visit the country to inspect its arsenal of the banned weapons.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has insisted his country will comply with a UN resolution under which his regime must turn over its chemical weapons for destruction.

But the violence on the ground continued, with at least 16 people -- 10 of them students -- killed when a regime air raid hit a high school in the northern rebel-held city of Raqa.

The UN's six-person team of chemical weapons experts, which is on its second mission to Syria to investigate alleged attacks, is scheduled to leave the country on Monday.

The team has said it hopes to present a final report on the alleged attacks by late October, following an interim report submitted this month which confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin in an August 21 attack in the suburbs of Damascus.

On Tuesday, a team of around 20 inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is due in Damascus to begin inspecting Syria's arsenal ahead of its destruction.

"At this point, we have absolutely no reason to doubt the information provided by the Syrian regime," an OPCW official told journalists at in The Hague on Sunday.

The regime and the rebels have traded accusations of chemical weapons use during the 30-month war that has killed more than 110,000 people and forced two million to flee the country.

The United States threatened military action after the August 21 attack, in which it said regime forces had deliberately killed hundreds of civilians with rocket-delivered nerve agents.

Syria denied the allegations but agreed to relinquish its chemical arsenal to head off a strike under a US-Russian deal which was enshrined in a landmark UN Security Council resolution.

In his first comments since the resolution was passed on Friday, Assad on Sunday told Italy's Rai News 24 his regime "will comply."

"Of course we will comply with it, and history proves that we have always honoured all treaties we have signed," state news agency SANA quoted him as saying.

Assad also said warming relations between the United States and Syria's ally Iran could benefit Damascus and the region, "so long as the United States is honest."

But he said that most European countries "are unable" to play a role in the much-delayed peace conference on Syria which is now being planned for mid-November in Geneva.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon pressed for the conference during his first meeting Saturday with Syria's opposition National Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba, who said he was ready to send a delegation to the meeting, a UN spokesman said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem meanwhile insisted there could be no talk of Assad's departure -- a demand of both Western governments and the Syrian opposition.

The inspectors face a daunting task as they seek to account for chemical weapons in the midst of a brutal civil war that on Sunday saw 16 people killed in the bombardment of a high school in Raqa.

Video footage posted online by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights showed carnage, including mangled bodies.

"There was panic, with children crying as they sought to take shelter," the Observatory quoted a survivor as saying.

Raqa, the only provincial capital in rebel hands, was captured from government forces in March.

In northern Aleppo province, the Observatory said regime planes fired at the town of Al-Bab and the Kweyris airport, which rebels have laid siege to for months.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR meanwhile said it had dispatched 44 containers of aid from Dubai to Syria to assist displaced people in difficult-to-reach areas.

The delivery, containing sleeping mats, tarpaulins and other items, is UNHCR's largest such shipment from Dubai this year and is expected to reach Syria in about a month.

Later on Monday the UN Security Council was to launch talks on a statement about the humanitarian crisis in Syria which could include a controversial call to allow cross-border missions, diplomats said.

The operation to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal will be one of the largest and most dangerous of its kind.

Syria's 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 United Nations and the global chemical weapons watchdog have launched an urgent appeal for experts to join the mission to destroy the weapons by a target date of mid-2014.

OPCW experts are to visit all production and storage sites that Syria has identified. Damascus is also due to provide further details by Friday.

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