Syria has completed the destruction of equipment used to produce chemical weapons, a global watchdog has said, meeting another deadline in an ambitious timeline to eliminate the country's entire stockpile by mid-2014.
The announcement highlights President Bashar Assad's willingness to cooperate to avoid punitive international military action and puts further pressure on divided and outgunned rebels seeking to topple him ahead of a planned peace conference.
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 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.
A Syrian legislator said Damascus has met all its deadlines which confirm the "seriousness of its intentions to rid itself of such weapons".
"This is a clear indication of the Syrian government's wish to cooperate and abide by its commitments," Issam Khalil said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Thursday's announcement illustrates the government's willingness to cooperate and win points with the international community. That puts pressure on Syria's fragmented opposition and outgunned rebels to join an international peace conference for Syria planned in Geneva next month.
No final date has been set for the talks, and there have been disagreements between the opposition on whether they should attend or not and conditions for taking part. Syria's main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, postponed its general council meeting in Istanbul from November 1 to 10, pending further discussions on the talks.
Destruction of the equipment means that Syria can no longer produce new chemical weapons at the facilities it declared to the OPCW, spokesman Michael Luhan said.
However, Damascus still has to start destroying existing weapons and stockpiles. The country is believed to have around 1,000 metric tons of chemicals and weapons, including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin.
The announcement came as fighting raged Thursday in the town of Safira, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. Experts say the town is home to a chemical weapons production facility, as well as storage sites
The Observatory said troops advanced Thursday in the town and captured several neighbourhoods. It added that the fighting is concentrating in the eastern parts of Safira.
President Bashar Assad's troops have been battling rebels, many of them linked to al-Qaeda groups, in Safira for weeks. The Observatory said there were casualties on both sides Thursday but had no specifics.
Also on Thursday, the Observatory said more than 120,000 people have been killed since the start of the country's conflict nearly three years ago. The group which has been tracking the death toll through a network of activists in Syria said they included 61,067 civians and 29,954 members of Assad's armed forces.
On July 25, the UN estimated 100,000 have died in the conflict since March 2011. It has not updated that figure since.
The violence underscored the dangers the chemical weapons' inspectors face as they race against tight deadlines in the midst of an ongoing civil war.
A statement from the OPCW, which works closely with the United Nations, said its team was "now satisfied that it has verified - and seen destroyed - all of Syria's declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment". It added that "no further inspection activities are currently planned".
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, the inspectors said.
On Thursday, OPCW said the two locations were, according to Syria, "abandoned and ... the chemical weapons program items they contained were moved to other declared sites, which were inspected".
It was not immediately clear if the facility in Safira was one of the two sites that OPCW inspectors were not able to visit.
Commenting on the two sites, Luhan said "it was just deemed too risky." He told the AP that Syrian authorities were not able to offer the necessary security guarantees for inspectors to visit those sites.
He added, however, that the Syrian side provided "quite compelling documentary evidence" that in one of those sites, that equipment was moved to another site that inspectors did visit. "We were able to verify that that equipment was rendered inoperable by functional destruction of its critical equipment," he said.
Syria has submitted a plan for the total destruction of its chemical weapons that has to be approved next month by the OPCW's executive committee.
In other developments, the Observatory's chief Rami Abdurrahman said there had been a strong explosion Wednesday inside an air defence facility in Syria's coastal province of Latakia. The cause of the blast was not known, he said.