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October 29, 2013

Chemical weapons inspectors in Syria miss deadline

BEIRUT —  International inspectors overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile have missed an early deadline in a brutally tight schedule after security concerns prevented them from visiting two sites linked to Damascus' chemical program.

The chief of the global chemical weapons watchdog disclosed for the first time in a report obtained by The Associated Press that Syria has declared 41 facilities at 23 chemical sites where it stored approximately 1,300 tons of precursors and agents, and over 1,200 unfilled munitions to deliver them.

Ahmet Uzumcu said in his first report to the U.N. Security Council that inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had corroborated the information provided by Syria at 37 of the 41 facilities.

But the OPCW said inspectors were only able to visit 21 of the 23 sites because of security risks — which means the tight timeline for visiting all declared sites by Oct. 27 was missed.

While there are no consequences for missing the deadline, the group's failure to meet it underscores the ambitious timeline as well as the risks its inspectors face in carrying out their mission in the middle of Syria's civil war.

The OPCW did not say who was responsible for the security problems, but Uzumcu has said in the past that temporary cease-fires may have to be negotiated between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad to reach some sites.

The two sites appear to be in rebel-held or contested areas. At least one location is believed to be the town of al-Safira, which experts say is home to a production facility as well as storage sites. It has been engulfed by fighting for months, and many rebels in the area are from al-Qaida-linked groups.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a seven-page letter to the Security Council, also obtained by AP, that the joint OPCW-U.N. mission is constantly reviewing security at the two locations "with the intention of visiting them as soon as conditions permit."

The mission faces a string of target dates for specific tasks as it aims to achieve the overall goal of ridding Syria of its chemical stockpile by mid-2014. The next target is Nov. 1 when Syria is to complete the "functional destruction" of all equipment to produce chemical weapons, aimed at ensuring that Syria can no longer make new chemical weapons.

The U.N. chief said he expects the destruction to be completed on time, "with the possible exception" of the two sites.

After that, the international community and Syria have to agree to a plan to destroy the country's chemical stockpile, which is believed to include mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin.

Uzumcu's report provided details of the 41 facilities — 18 chemical weapons production facilities, 12 chemical weapons storage facilities, eight mobile units to fill chemical weapons, and three chemical weapons-related facilities.

Syria also submitted information on approximately 1,000 metric tons of Category 1 chemical weapons, largely precursors which are rarely used for peaceful purposes; approximately 290 metric tons of Category 2 substances which are toxic chemicals that pose significant risk; and approximately 1,230 unfilled chemical munitions, which could include rockets, cartridges and mines.

"In addition, the Syrian authorities have reported finding two cylinders not belonging to them, which are believed to contain chemical weapons," Uzumcu said.

Syria is responsible for the destruction of all facilities, stocks and chemical weapons-related materials. It has sent the OPCW a plan for full destruction of the stockpile that has to be discussed by the group's executive council next month.

Ban said a Syrian list of "requirements" to implement a "security plan" to handle and transport materials chemical weapons-related material within the country contains some items which also "have practical military applications."

"The United Nations will not procure or otherwise provide such dual-use material to the government," Ban stressed.

He made clear that any role for the OPCW-U.N. mission in the packing, safe transport, and possible removal of chemical agents from Syria "requires further consultation and review." The joint mission will also need to identify areas where support may be required from U.N. member states and other organizations, he said.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States is reviewing Syria's declaration, which ran to more than 700 pages.

The OPCW-U.N. mission stems from a deadly chemical attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus in August that killed hundreds of people. Assad denied any role in the attack, while the U.S. and its allies blamed his government and threatened to carry out punitive missile strikes.

The U.S. and Russia then brokered an agreement for Syria to relinquish its chemical arsenal. Assad quickly agreed, and the deal was enshrined in a U.N. Security Council resolution which also endorsed a roadmap for a political transition in Syria, and called for a peace conference to be held in Geneva as soon as possible.

U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi traveled to Damascus Monday as part of his regional trip to try to drum up support for the conference.

Also Monday, Syrian government forces retook a Christian town north of Damascus, expelling al-Qaida-linked rebels after a week of heavy fighting, state media and opposition activists said.

 

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