THE HAGUE/BEIRUT: The chief of the global chemical weapons watchdog said Tuesday the organization was sending a second team of inspectors to Syria to expand its high-stakes, high-risk mission to rid Syria of its poison gas stockpile.
Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, spoke to the group’s 41-nation Executive Council at the beginning of a four-day meeting in The Hague.
The organization’s inspectors are in Syria to verify and destroy the country’s estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, in the midst of a more than two-and-a-half-year civil war.
Uzumcu called initial Syrian cooperation with the team last week – providing more detail of the country’s chemical weapons and beginning to destroy them and the facilities used to produce them – “a constructive beginning for what will nonetheless be a long and difficult process,” according to an OPCW statement.
Syria also highlighted the inspectors’ work in a video broadcast on state TV late Monday showing their activity for the first time.
The inspectors were shown touring what appeared to be a chemical plant and a storage facility, inspecting containers and taking samples.
They could be seen taking photographs of the facility in the piece that aired during the Syrian official TV station’s prime-time news program.
An advance team of 35 OPCW and U.N. staff originally traveled to Damascus last week. Some OPCW staff members have already returned to the organization’s headquarters to report on their talks with officials from President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus.
Uzumcu said he would soon sign an agreement between the OPCW and the U.N. to provide security and logistics to the inspection teams.
In Damascus, ruling Baath party lawmaker Walid al-Zoubi said the chemical weapons “have become a heavy burden on the state and are not a strategic defensive stock anymore” and the nation was ready to dispose of them. “Our defensive strategic reserve is much stronger than the chemicals,” Zoubi told the Associated Press. “For this reason, Syria now has to get rid of this chemical inventory.”
Uzumcu did not specify how many people would be in the second team, but in a letter to the U.N. Security Council obtained by AP, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended Monday that approximately 100 U.N. and OPCW staff eventually make up the mission.
He said the international community’s aim of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons program by mid-2014 would require “an operation the likes of which, quite simply, have never been tried before,” with greater operational and security risks because of the speed required.
Ban Tuesday praised the U.N. resolution ordering the destruction of the chemical arsenal as “a hopeful sign after more than two-and-a-half years of deadlock.”
The resolution was the first on the Syria conflict since fighting began in March 2011. The U.N. estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since then.
Ban also called for “action” over the dire humanitarian situation in conflict-torn Syria. “The Security Council has ... made a strong commitment to relieve the humanitarian situation to reach millions of desperate civilians. Now these commitments must be backed by action,” he told journalists in Budapest, where he opened a U.N. conference.
On the ground Tuesday, government warplanes bombed rebel positions near a strategic northern city, activists said.
The rebels captured Maaret al-Numan a year ago, after systematically seizing the army’s outposts in the city, along a major supply route linking the capital, Damascus, with the contested Idlib region and Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.
Fighting has flared up there in recent days, even as government forces and opposition fighters remain locked in a bloody, block-by-block fight for Aleppo since rebels launched an assault on it 15 months ago.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighter jets twice hit opposition-held areas Tuesday near the city, and heavy fighting then broke out at a nearby army base. The group added that there were casualties in the fighting.
Dramatic footage shot by AP showed a group of 45 young rebel fighters launching a surprise attack on the military base, and others deploying improvised cannons and makeshift mortars. Some are also seen firing anti-aircraft weapons at attacking government helicopters.
The Syrian army responded with airstrikes and shelling to block the rebel advance, killing at least one of the fighters Monday, opposition fighters told AP.
The fight for the base is part of the ongoing, broader struggle for control of northern Syria where the opposition controls large swathes of territory captured from Assad’s troops.
“We are ready to move on our military operation, in order to remove the enemy checkpoints and the army presence in the Wadi Deif area and army base,” one of the fighters said before heading into the battle. “God is great and He is the one who protects us.”
Most of the northern countryside is in the hands of anti-Assad fighters, while the government is holding out in isolated military bases and inside major cities.
In response to accusations from Assad that Ankara was tolerating the presence of Al-Qaeda-linked rebels on the long volatile border between the two countries, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Tuesday it had never allowed them to use its territory to launch attacks against the Damascus regime.
“Turkey is on the front line of countries fighting against terrorism in the most determined fashion,” Davutoglu said at a news conference in Ankara.