Damascus (AFP) – International disarmament experts arrived Tuesday in the Syrian capital to begin the daunting task of cataloging the country’s arsenal of chemical weapons ahead of its destruction.
Nineteen inspectors from The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons traveled by road from Lebanon a day after UN experts left Damascus after probing alleged gas attacks.
Syria’s information minister meanwhile insisted that President Bashar al-Assad would stay in office and that he had the option to run for another term in elections next year.
Assad’s departure is a key demand of the opposition, who insist it must be a pillar of a mooted peace conference in Geneva.
And the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group released a new toll in the conflict, saying more than 115,000 people had been killed since March 2011.
The OPCW inspectors are in Syria to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2118 ordering the elimination of the chemical arsenal by mid-2014.
The UN said they were accompanied by 14 staffers and would begin in the coming days to verify data provided by Assad’s regime and plan how the weapons will be destroyed.
The task is huge as the 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 war-torn country.
The OPCW said the inspectors — all volunteers — would meet Syrian government officials late Tuesday before setting off to work.
The mission is the first in OPCW history to take place in a country embroiled by civil war, and the inspectors are to check a list of sites provided by the Damascus regime and conduct on the spot testing.
The UN team that left Damascus on Monday probed seven alleged gas attacks and hopes to present a final report by late October, after an initial one in September confirmed sarin gas was used in August 21 attacks on the outskirts of Damascus.
The United States threatened military action in response, accusing Assad’s forces of deliberately killing hundreds of civilians with rocket-delivered nerve agents.
Syria denied this but agreed to relinquish its chemical arsenal, effectively heading off a strike, under a U.S.-Russian deal enshrined in the UN resolution.
The OPCW has said it has no reason to doubt information provided by Syria on its chemical weapons and Assad has said he will comply with the terms of the resolution.
Top on the list of the inspectors, who drove from Beirut to a five-star Damascus hotel in a 20-vehicle UN convoy, will be production sites which are to be disabled by late October or early November.
“Expedient methods” will be used to render these production facilities unusable, said an OPCW official.
UN Resolution 2118 also calls for a peace conference to be held as soon as possible in Geneva, and UN chief Ban Ki-moon set a target date of mid-November.
The prospects for such a conference remain uncertain, however, with Syria insisting Assad’s departure is not on the table, despite it being a key demand of the rebels and their backers.
“Syria is staying put: the state, the nation, the people and the president. This is the Syrians’ choice,” said Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi.
He added: “All the people call for President Bashar al-Assad to be president of this state, whatever the opposition, the Americans and the traitors say.”
Zohbi added Assad had the “right to take a decision” on whether he would run for a new term in mid-2014, when his mandate expires.
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, speaking at the UN on Monday, also insisted no pre-conditions be set for the planned peace conference.
“It is now for those who claim to support a political solution in Syria to stop all hostile practices and policies against Syria, and to head to Geneva without preconditions,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Observatory said the toll since the beginning of the conflict had now reached 115,000 people, most of them fighters from both sides.
More than four million people have been displaced inside Syria, and more than 2.1 million have fled across its borders.
The opposition National Coalition, meanwhile, accused the regime of pressing a campaign to “starve and displace” residents from Moadamiyet al-Sham, a Damascus suburb allegedly hit by poisonous gas.
The Observatory reported violence in flashpoints around Damascus and in the northern province of Aleppo, where at least 20 rebels including from Al-Qaeda affiliate the Al-Nusra Front were killed in army bombing intended to open a new supply route between central Syria and Aleppo city.