International inspectors were on Friday gearing up to disable war-hit Syria’s chemical weapons programme after reporting “encouraging” progress in a day of meetings with regime officials.
And from its headquarters in The Hague, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said Syria had provided “additional information” on the programme, complying with its obligations under a UN resolution.
In a television interview, President Bashar al-Assad again denied having perpetrated an August 21 chemical attacks on the outskirts of Damascus that killed hundreds and prompted Washington to threaten military action.
Syria’s chemical arsenal — to be destroyed under the UN resolution — is in the hands of “special forces” who were the only ones capable of using them, Assad said.
“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 inspectors from OPCW international watchdog and the United Nations has been tasked with implementing the resolution to destroy the banned arsenal by mid-2014.
They arrived in Syria on Tuesday and reported “encouraging initial progress” after a day of meetings with the authorities on Thursday.
OPCW director-general Ahmet Uzumcu said a new submission from the Syrian authorities “was additional to the disclosure” made by the regime on September 21.
Under UN Security Council Resolution 2118, adopted a week ago, Damascus had seven days after its approval to provide further details about its chemical stockpile — including information on chemical weapons precursors and toxins, as well as quantities.
“The additional submission is being reviewed by the OPCW,” Uzumcu said.
The 19-member OPCW team on the ground faces a daunting task, as Syria is understood to have more than 1,000 tonnes of the nerve agent sarin, mustard gas and other banned arms 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 organisation’s first mission in a country embroiled in a civil war.
The conflict has since 115,000 people since it broke out in March 2011 and forced 2.1 million Syrians to flee their homeland.
Turkey will ‘pay dearly’
Nearly another six million people are displaced inside the country, while hundreds of thousands are 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.
Turkey will ‘pay dearly’
In the interview with opposition Turkish channel Halk TV, Assad said Syria’s neighbour would pay for supporting the rebellion.
Turkey’s parliament on Thursday extended for one year a mandate that would allow the country to send troops to Syria if necessary.
“In the near future these terrorists will have an impact on Turkey. And Turkey will pay very dearly for its contribution,” Assad said.
Reacting to his remarks, anti-Assad protesters took to the streets on Friday in flashpoints across the country, under the slogan “Thank you, Turkey”.
Fierce battles, meanwhile, gripped Barzeh in northern Damascus, as troops pressed a campaign aimed at crushing rebel enclaves around the capital, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
In Hasakeh in the north, fighting between the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Kurdish forces left an unknown number of dead on both sides, the Observatory said.
The monitoring group later reported several air strikes across the country, including in Yabrud near Damascus that was hit by five separate strikes. A man and woman were reportedly killed in the bombardment.
The air force also struck Mayadeen in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, killing at least three people.