Weapons Experts Kick Off Complex Syria Mission

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -
The convoy of a U.N. team of weapons inspectors, who concluded its almost week-long mission in Syria, arrive at Rafik Hariri international airport in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
The convoy of a U.N. team of weapons inspectors, who concluded its almost week-long mission in Syria, arrive at Rafik Hariri international airport in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Inspectors charged with the enormous task of overseeing the destruction of Syria’s deadly chemical weapons stockpiles kicked off their mission Monday, racing to meet tight deadlines against the backdrop of civil war.

The Syrian regime lashed out at the rebels, claiming government forces are fighting mostly al-Qaida-linked terrorists and refusing to talk with the main Western-backed opposition group — a blow to U.S.-Russian efforts to hold a peace conference by November.

On Monday, 20 inspectors from the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons landed in Beirut on a private jet on their way to Syria.

The group is to travel to Damascus on Tuesday to begin its ambitious task — a complex and potentially explosive mission fraught with security challenges. They are expected to meet with Syrian Foreign Ministry officials on arrival.

Inspectors at The Hague said Sunday the inspectors’ priority is to achieve the first milestone of helping the country scrap its ability to manufacture chemical weapons by a Nov. 1 deadline, using every means possible.

That may include smashing mixing equipment with sledgehammers, blowing up delivery missiles, driving tanks over empty shells or filling them with concrete, and running machines without lubricant so they seize up and become inoperable.

Some of the inspectors will be double-checking Syria’s initial disclosure of what weapons and chemical precursors it has and where they are located. Others will begin planning the logistics for visits to every location where chemicals or weapons are stored.

Within a week a second group of inspectors will arrive — fewer than 100 in all — and form teams that will fan out to individual sites. Their routes are secret — both for their safety and because Syria has the right not to reveal its military secrets, including base locations.

The inspectors have about nine months to find and dismantle an estimated a 1,000-ton chemical arsenal that took years to build — the shortest deadline they have ever faced in any nation, and their first mission in a country at war.

On Monday, another U.N. team of inspectors charged with investigating alleged chemical attack sites concluded its almost weeklong mission in Syria and headed to Lebanon, where they boarded flights back home.