Weapons team facing year in harm's way

Mortars and roadside bombs have exploded near the inspectors, says UN leader.

Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon added that roadside bombs "have detonated in close proximity" to the inspectors. Photo / AP
Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon added that roadside bombs "have detonated in close proximity" to the inspectors. Photo / AP

About 100 international experts will have to spend up to a year in Syria destroying its chemical weapons in a mission of unprecedented danger, UN leader Ban Ki-moon says.

The experts "will seek to conduct an operation the likes of which, quite simply, have never been tried before", Ban told the UN Security Council.

A team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is already in Syria to start the destruction of weapons production facilities. Ban recommended it be increased to about 100 scientists, logistics and security experts.

If his recommendations are approved, the mission will have its headquarters in Damascus with a support base in Cyprus.

"The joint mission will be expected to support, monitor and verify the destruction of a complex chemical weapons programme involving multiple sites spread over a country engulfed in violent conflict," Ban said. "The timelines associated with this destruction phase would be ambitious under the most peaceful and benign of circumstances."

The experts will have to work in "dangerous and volatile" conditions, particularly in urban areas such as Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, the UN leader said. "Heavy artillery, air strikes, mortar barrages and the indiscriminate shelling of civilians areas are commonplace and battle lines shift quickly."

Two mortars landed near the Damascus hotel the team is using just before they arrived last week. Ban added that roadside bombs "have detonated in close proximity" to the inspectors.

John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are set to meet the UN special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to discuss the parallel plan to convene peace talks between the warring parties in Geneva in mid-November.

At the weekend, Brahimi warned he still could not guarantee any such talks would take place. Hurdles include a demand by opposition leaders in exile that they are accompanied by a commitment from President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Opposition and rebel figures also continued to voice suspicions over the chemical weapons deal, arguing it has only given Assad and his army new legitimacy and leeway to press forward with its military campaign against them.

Recent weeks and months have seen some gains for the regime including reports that its forces had reopened a vital road link between Damascus and the country's largest city, Aleppo.

"It is all about giving Assad more time to kill more people. And here he is, using Scud [missiles] and recruiting fighters," said activist Susan Ahmad. "The international community is celebrating the victory of keeping Assad as President despite the fact that he has killed hundreds of thousands."

Even with the quick start, the task of removing the whole chemical stockpile remains daunting. Once munitions are destroyed, the inspectors must turn to the roughly 1000 tonnes of sarin, mustard gas and other neurotoxic agents that are said to be spread through as many as 45 different locations in a country convulsed by conflict. Their destruction will need the co-operation not just of the government but also rebel forces.

An advance team of top OPCW officials who have been discussing the disarmament plan with the regime were headed back to The Hague and said that a first report to the UN Security Council on plans for the future would be submitted on October 27. The OPCW said that those who left Syria had held "constructive" talks with the Government about the details Damascus has provided about its programme. Syrian authorities have been "co-operative."

The displaced

*4.25m more Syrians will be forced to flee their homes in 2014, the UN has predicted.
* 2m will leave Syria as refugees, while the other 2.25 million will be displaced within Syria.
*2m Syrians have already fled to neighbouring countries.
*3.2m Syrians will have become refugees by the end of this year, according to current estimates.
*8.3m Syrians will need aid next year, putting further strain on already stretched resources.

- additional reporting AFP

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