Middle East

Syria chemical arms removal begins

Chemical weapons inspectors in Syria, 5 October 2013
Image caption The team is working under the terms of UN resolution

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 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.

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.