Security a concern for weapons inspectors in Syria

Car bombs and mortars have exploded close to the hotel where chemical weapons inspectors are staying in the Syrian capital in recent days, but officials said Thursday there is no way of knowing if the team is being deliberately targeted.

2013-10-17T100307Z_1_CBRE99G0RXE00_RTROPTP_3_SYRIA-CRISIS-CHEMICAL Security a concern for weapons inspectors in Syria

Malik Ellahi, a senior official at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, told a small group of reporters at the organization’s headquarters the latest “mortar incident” happened late Wednesday close to the team’s Damascus hotel. That followed car bombs and mortars detonating close to the hotel on Oct. 12.

“In terms of the security situation there are always concerns but the team so far has, with the cooperation of the Syrian authorities, managed to conduct its work unimpeded,” Ellahi said.

The OPCW won Nobel Peace Prize last week for its work in attempting to rid the world of chemical weapons.

It is working with the United Nations in an unprecedented disarmament mission in Syria, attempting to destroy the country’s chemical arsenal by mid-2014 — the first time its inspectors have been sent into the heart of a civil war.

Ellahi said the team is approaching the halfway mark of the first phase of its mission — to verify Syria’s initial declaration of its weapons program and render production and chemical mixing facilities inoperable by Nov. 1. The team already has visited 11 locations since it started work Oct. 1 and carried out destruction work at six of them.

In the first phase of the disarmament plan, inspectors are making production facilities inoperable by smashing control panels on machines and are destroying empty munitions.

“Cheap, quick and low-tech. Nothing fancy,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said of the destruction activities so far. Later in the mission, the work gets more complex and dangerous when actual chemical weapons have to be destroyed. Negotiations are still underway as to how and where that will happen.

So far, inspectors have found no discrepancies between what Syria declared when it signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention last month and also have found no “weaponized” chemical munitions — shells ready and capable of delivering poison gas or nerve agents.

One of the key issues facing the team is access to sites close to rebel held areas. The organization has said it may have to negotiate short-term cease-fires to get to certain sites.

Ellahi would not elaborate on exactly how many of the more than 20 locations the inspectors have to visit will be tough to access.

“There are few,” he said.

Chemical weapons watchdog says confident on Syria deadlines

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog is confident it will be able to meet deadlines to destroy Syria’s toxic stockpile even though some sites are in disputed or rebel-held territory, a special adviser to the organization’s director general said.

Inspectors from the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which won the Nobel Peace Prize last week, have visited nearly half of more than 20 sites declared by Damascus, Malik Ellahi, special adviser to Director General Ahmet Uzumcu, said on Thursday.

“We are on track. The team is confident, the morale is high and cooperation from the Syrian authorities has been forthcoming,” he said.

Under a Russian-American brokered deal, Syria has until November 1 to destroy or render unusable all chemical agent production and weapon filling facilities. Ellahi said the team had been “making good progress in making those sites inoperable” by destroying equipment and facilities.

The OPCW expects to be able to access sites, including in rebel-held territory, with a joint U.N. mission negotiating ceasefires with forces fighting against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, he said.

“In terms of the security situation there are always concerns, but the team so far has had the cooperation of the Syrian authorities and managed to conduct its work unimpeded,” Ellahi said.

Details of Syria’s program have not been made public, but experts and Western intelligence agencies have said it has 1,000 metric tonnes of chemical weapons, including sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent.

“What we have verified so far has been according to the disclosure” of chemical weapons submitted to the OPCW by Syria, Ellahi told reporters in The Hague. “We have not found anything of significance which we should be worried about.”

Dozens of inspectors on the ground were working in dangerous conditions, with shells and explosive devices having gone off near their hotel in Damascus in recent days, he said.

By mid-2014 Syria must have destroyed its entire chemical weapons stockpile, including all munitions, bulk chemical stores and research facilities.

Discussions were underway with parties in the conflict to gain access to sites in sensitive locations. “They are still working on those issues,” he said.