LONDON: Britain will host an international conference on the Syrian conflict Tuesday to prepare the way for planned peace talks in Geneva, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Friday.
The conference in London will bring together representatives of the Syrian opposition and the foreign ministers of the so-called London 11, the core group of the Friends of Syria, including the United States, France and Saudi Arabia.
Hague said the nations would “discuss preparations for the Geneva Conference, support for the [opposition] Syrian National Coalition, and our efforts to achieve a political settlement to this tragic conflict.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said this week it was “urgent” to set a date for the so-called Geneva II meeting, but that peace was impossible while President Bashar Assad remained in power.
Representatives of the leadership of the National Coalition will attend the London meeting.
The “ London 11” consists of Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
Syria’s close ally Russia, which helped to avert U.S.-led military action against Assad’s regime by brokering a deal to dispose of its chemical weapons, is not attending the London talks.
The announcement came as chemical inspectors completed the checking of 14 out of more than 20 sites, while a top U.N. official appointed to lead the mission headed for The Hague.
“The number of sites visited where inspection activities have been conducted has increased to 14,” the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a statement.
Damascus has identified a total of 20 sites but the OPCW has not provided an exact number, saying only that “more than 20 sites” are affected by the ongoing inspection.
The Hague-based group said Thursday it had completed “nearly 50 percent” of the inspection of Syria’s chemical arsenal, which has to be destroyed by mid-2014. A day earlier, it had said that 11 sites had already been inspected.
Despite the progress made, an OPCW political adviser on Syria told journalists Thursday that security remained a concern for the unprecedented mission in the war-torn country.
The organization, which last week was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the U.N. have about 60 experts working in Syria to eradicate chemical weapons.
The OPCW last month accepted Assad’s application to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, in a bid to stave off a possible Western military strike. Syria formally joined the convention Monday.
So far Syria has won rare praise for its cooperation with the inspectors, but the U.N. has stressed that key deadlines in the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons should be met.
This included verifying Syria’s disclosed chemical arms, identifying key equipment, destroying production facilities and starting the destruction of Category 3 chemical weapons by Nov.1.
Meanwhile, the Dutch official named by the U.N. to head the dangerous mission in Syria “is scheduled to visit The Hague soon for briefings and discussions,” the OPCW said.
Sigrid Kaag, a U.N. assistant secretary-general who speaks fluent Arabic and has wide Middle East experience, was appointed Wednesday to head the mission.
Separately, Cyprus said it had approved the establishment of a support base for chemical weapons inspectors.
“The Council of Ministers has ratified the agreement between the Republic of Cyprus and the U.N.-OPCW for the establishment of a support base of the joint mission of U.N.-OPCW,” said a government statement.
A support base has been created within the U.N.-controlled buffer zone at Nicosia’s disused airport from where inspectors will travel to and from Syria, some 220 kilometers away.
“The decision by the U.N. for the establishment of a support base of the mission in Cyprus demonstrates the stabilizing and upgraded role of Cyprus in the region,” the statement said.
Earlier this month U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called for the establishment of a “staging area and support base” for 100 staff in Cyprus.
In a letter addressed to the Security Council, Ban also said Cyprus would be home to the fundraising wing of the chemical arms operation.