Syria has destroyed critical equipment for producing chemical weapons and poison gas munitions, the global chemical weapons watchdog said yesterday as fierce clashes raged in the country's north, close to one of the sites where toxic agents are believed to be stored.
The announcement by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons came one day ahead of the November 1 deadline set by the Hague-based organisation for Damascus to destroy or "render inoperable" all chemical weapon production facilities and machinery for mixing chemicals into poison gas and filling munitions.
The completion of what is essentially the initial stage of destruction is a significant milestone in an ambitious timeline that aims to destroy all of Damascus' chemical weapons by mid-2014.
Destruction of the equipment means that Syria can no longer produce new chemical weapons.
However, Damascus still has to start destroying existing weapons and stockpiles. The country is believed to have about 1,000 metric tonnes of chemicals and weapons including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin.
The announcement came as fighting raged yesterday in the town of Safira, which experts say is home to a chemical weapons production facility as well as storage sites, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain. The fighting underscored the dangers that the chemical weapons' inspectors face as they race against tight deadlines in their mission to rid Syria of the toxic arsenal in the midst of a civil war.
A statement from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which works closely with the UN, said its team was "now satisfied that it has verified - and seen destroyed - all of Syria's declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment".
Earlier this week, the inspectors said they had completed their first round of verification work, visiting 21 of 23 sites declared by Damascus. They were unable to visit two sites because of security concerns.