Syria official says peace talks possible in November

AFP , Thursday 17 Oct 2013

Syria's deputy prime minister says the Geneva II peace conference could be held at the end of next month, with or without all factions of the opposition

Syria peace talks could take place next month, a senior Syrian official said Thursday, as chemical weapons experts announced the completion of nearly half of their inspections of the country's arsenal.

Speaking in Moscow, Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil said proposed talks in Geneva could take place "November 23-24."

"We are closer than ever to holding the Geneva II," Jamil told reporters after talks at the Russian foreign ministry, adding that the timeframe for the conference was "hypothetical."

Russia and Western nations, led by the United States, have been pushing for talks between the Syrian regime and rebels on a negotiated solution to the conflict that has killed more than 115,000 people.

The Geneva II conference was first mooted by the United States and Russia in May but has been repeatedly put off.

The Syrian opposition is divided on attending the conference, and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad says his removal from office will not be on the table at any talks.

But Jamil said there was "no alternative" to the peace conference and that the absence of parts of the Syrian opposition would not affect the timing or format.

"Today no aspect of the Syrian crisis can be solved without it," he said in remarks translated from Arabic into Russian, adding the talks had to put an end to "foreign interference" in the conflict.

"This will lead to the launch of a political process and cessation of violence."

The international community has renewed its push for the Geneva conference in the wake of a deal under which Syria will turn over its chemical weapons arsenal for destruction.

The agreement, enshrined in a UN Security Council resolution, staved off threatened US military action against Assad's regime in the wake of a 21 August sarin gas attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds.

Under the UN resolution, a team from the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrived in Damascus earlier this month to begin verifying and destroying Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.

On Thursday, the OPCW said nearly half its inspections of the arsenal were complete.

"We have done nearly 50 percent of the verification work of the facilities that have been declared to us," Malik Ellahi, a political advisor on Syria for the OPCW told journalists in The Hague.

Despite the progress, Ellahi said security remained a concern for the unprecedented mission in war-torn Syria, with mortar and car bomb attacks taking place in areas near to the inspectors' Damascus hotel.

"One of the things that is of concern is of course the security situation," said Ellahi, who advises OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu.

"There have been a number of incidents over the last few days which gives some cause for concern."

The OPCW said Wednesday that its inspectors had checked 11 out of 20 sites identified by Damascus and destroyed chemical weapons equipment at six sites.

The organisation, which last week was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the United Nations currently have about 60 experts working in Syria.

So far Damascus has won rare praise for its cooperation with the inspectors, but the UN has stressed that key deadlines in the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons should be met.

These include verifying Syria's disclosed chemical weapons, identifying key equipment, destroying production facilities and starting the destruction of Category 3 chemical weapons by 1 November.

Inspectors have until 30 June next year to complete the destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal.

On the ground in Syria, fighting between the army and rebels at a prison in the northern city of Aleppo eased, a day after opposition fighters stormed the facility.

The mostly jihadist rebel forces launched an attack on the regime-controlled prison Wednesday night, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The military responded to the assault by firing a barrage of shells in the area around the prison, but the intensity of the clashes decreased after midnight, the Observatory said.

Meanwhile, television channel Sky News Arabia said it had lost contact with its crew on assignment in Aleppo.

The Abu Dhabi-based channel said Mauritanian reporter Ishak Moctar, Lebanese cameraman, Samir Kassab, and a Syrian driver it did not name at his family's request have been missing since Tuesday.

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