Syria chemical arms removal begins
The destruction of Syria's chemical weapons has begun, international monitors have said.
The operation is being overseen by a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The mission was established under a United Nations resolution, which was passed after agreement between Russia and the US.
The resolution followed international outrage at a chemical weapons attack near Damascus in August.
In an interim report, UN chemical weapons inspectors confirmed that the nerve agent sarin had been used in the attack in Ghouta on the outskirts of the city on 21 August.
It was estimated to have killed hundreds of people and was blamed by the United States and other Western powers on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But he accuses Syrian rebels of being behind it.
It's a huge task - one estimate says Syria has 1,000 tonnes of the nerve agent sarin, VX nerve gas, mustard gas and other chemical weapons at some 20 sites.
Only the regime's inner circle knows if Sunday's highly symbolic images were the start of a serious process or a public relations exercise. Some diplomats say the Syrian leader knows he can't use chemical weapons again without inviting a military strike and so has decided to co-operate fully with the disarmament process.
The rebel Free Syrian Army, on the other hand, accuses the regime of moving chemical stocks to its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. That claim is not supported by proof but it emphasises that the international experts are attempting to work in the middle of a civil war. UN monitors were forced to withdraw last year because of the difficulty of working across active front lines. And, of course, getting rid of chemical weapons is not a means of bringing that civil war to an end.
It was not clear at which of the chemical weapons sites declared by the government, thought to number about 20, that Sunday's operation took place.
An official on the joint OPCW-UN delegation later said: "The first day of destruction and disabling is over and missile warheads, aerial bombs, along with mobile and static mixing and filling units, were dealt with. Work continues tomorrow and in the next few days."
The destruction of the stockpile, being carried out by the Syrians, is not expected to be straightforward, as some sites are in combat zones.
It is the first time the OPCW - based in The Hague - has been asked to oversee the destruction of a chemical weapons armoury during a conflict.
The Syrian government gave details of its chemical weapons arsenal last month to the OPCW under the Russia-US agreement which also provided for Damascus to join the Chemical Weapons Convention.
That arsenal is thought to include more than 1,000 tonnes of sarin and the blister agent sulphur mustard among other banned chemicals.Peace conference
Under the terms of the agreement between the US and Russia, Syria's chemical weapons capability should be removed by the middle of 2014.
The speed with which the team has been able to reach the sites and start the process of destruction underlines the urgency of the mission, says the BBC's Anna Holligan in the Hague.
Syria's chemical weapons
- Syria believed to possess more than 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents and pre-cursor chemicals, including blister agent, sulphur mustard, and sarin nerve agent; also thought to have produced most potent nerve agent, VX
- US believes Syria's arsenal can be "delivered by aircraft, ballistic missile, and artillery rockets"
- Syria acceded to Chemical Weapons Convention on 14 September; it signed Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in 1972 but never ratified
It was hoped that the new climate of co-operation would help bring about a wider conference in Geneva on ending the Syrian conflict.
UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was quoted on French media on Sunday as saying he was encouraging all parties to come to Geneva in the second half of November but that peace talks were not a certainty.
President Assad has meanwhile suggested Germany could mediate to try to end the 30-month-long civil war.
Speaking to Germany's Der Spiegel magazine in an interview to be published on Monday, Mr Assad said he "would be delighted if envoys came from Germany".
But he stressed that Damascus would not negotiate with rebels unless they laid down their weapons.
Mr Assad again repeated his denial that his troops had used chemical weapons, blaming the rebels instead.
More than 100,000 people have died since the uprising began in 2011 and millions more have fled Syria.