International experts were on Friday gearing up to disable the chemical weapons programme in war-hit Syria after reporting “encouraging” progress in a day of meetings with regime officials.
The Syrian regime and its armed opponents have both been accused of carrying out numerous atrocities in the 30-month conflict, which began as a popular uprising and has since snowballed into a full-blown war that has killed 115,000.
In a television interview broadcast on Friday, President Bashar al-Assad again denied having perpetrated an August 21 chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus that killed hundreds of people and prompted Washington to threaten military action.
Syria’s chemical arsenal – to be destroyed under a United Nations resolution – were in the hands of “special forces” who were the only ones capable of using them, Assad told opposition Turkish channel Halk TV.
“Preparing these weapons is a complex technical operation ... and a special procedure is necessary to use them which requires a central order from the army chief of staff. As a result it is impossible that they were used,” he said.
A team of experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations has been tasked with implementing the UN resolution to destroy the banned arsenal by mid-next year.
They arrived in Syria on Tuesday, and reported “encouraging initial progress” after a day of meetings with the authorities on Thursday.
“Documents handed over yesterday by the Syrian government look promising, according to team members, but further analysis, particularly of technical diagrams, will be necessary and some more questions remain to be answered,” it said.
The team said it hopes to begin on-site inspections and the initial disabling of equipment “within the next week”.
The 19-member team from The Hague-based OPCW faces a daunting task, as Assad’s regime is understood to have more than 1,000 tonnes of the nerve agent sarin, mustard gas and other banned weapons stored at dozens of sites.
Their immediate aim is to disable production sites by late October or early November using “expedient methods” including explosives, sledgehammers and pouring concrete, an OPCW official said.
It is the first mission in the organisation’s history to be undertaken in a country embroiled in a civil war.
The conflict has forced 2.1 million Syrians to flee their homeland, and nearly another six million people are displaced inside the country, hundreds of thousands trapped in besieged towns and neighbourhoods.
On Wednesday, the Security Council demanded “unhindered humanitarian access” across the conflict lines “and, where appropriate, across borders from neighbouring countries”.
Syria has blocked aid missions from those nations, saying supplies will go to rebels.
Since the beginning of the uprising, the council had been deadlocked over Syria, as Russia defended the Assad regime, and last week’s arms resolution and Wednesday statement are a breakthrough that helped avert potential US and French military action against Assad’s regime.
On the ground, however, fighting has continued to rage.
Rebels seized the village of Bakar in the southern province of Daraa, as regime forces recaptured a strategic northern town after weeks of battles, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The London-based group said dozens of fighters on both sides died in the battle for Khanasser, which sits on a key supply route between central Syria and the northern city of Aleppo.
Farther north, six Islamist rebel factions demanded that al-Qaeda front group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant withdraw from the town of Azaz, on the border with Turkey.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said, meanwhile, that tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria into Iraq in recent weeks have made an arduous journey by foot through the desert.
“Most of the refugees arrive at the border on foot after a long journey through a desert valley in intense heat. Many have left everything behind: family members, homes, and belongings,” it said.
The statement was issued after some 60,000 Syrians fled to Iraq since August 15.