September 23, 2013

Assad: Syria will allow access to chemical sites

He tells Chinese state TV that Damascus is dedicated to implementing a Russia-U.S. agreement to surrender its chemical weapons to international control.

By Albert Aji and Barbara Surk / The Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian President Bashar Assad said his government will allow international experts access to its chemical weapons sites, but cautioned in an interview broadcast Monday that rebels might block them from reaching some of the locations.

click image to enlarge

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with Chinese state CCTV, in Damascus on Monday.

AP

Assad's comments came as world leaders gathered in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly at which the use of chemical weapons in Syria was high on the agenda.

In a reminder that the civil war continues despite Assad's overtures to the international community, fighting raged across Syria, including an airstrike that killed at least six people from the same family in central Hama province. A top al-Qaida commander in Syria also was killed in an ambush by rival, Western-backed rebels in the north — the latest example of rising infighting among factions seeking to topple the regime.

Assad told Chinese state TV that Damascus is dedicated to implementing a Russia-U.S. agreement to surrender its chemical weapons to international control. According to the accord that was brokered last week in Geneva, inspectors are to be on the ground in Syria by November and all components of the chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by the middle of next year.

Assad said the government won't have "any problem" taking experts to sites where the weapons are kept but some of the places might be difficult to reach because of ongoing fighting.

"I'm referring to places where gunmen exist. Those gunmen might want to stop the experts' arrival," Assad told CCTV in the interview, which was filmed Sunday in Damascus.

Opposition fighters have insisted they will also cooperate with any inspectors or experts who come to the country.

Damascus met a first deadline under a U.S.-Russia agreement aimed at swiftly ridding Syria of its chemical arsenal, submitting last week what was supposedly the full list of its chemical weapons and production facilities to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons so they can be secured and destroyed.

Assad said his government will ensure that experts arrive "at the places where we produce and store our chemical weapons."

Technical experts at the watchdog organization have said they were reviewing disclosures from Syria about its chemical weapons program, but no details have been released.

The revelations of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal became public after an Aug. 21 attack near Damascus that a U.N. report found included the use of the nerve agent sarin. The U.S. and its Western allies say 1,400 people were killed in the attack in eastern Ghouta that brought Washington to the brink of military intervention. Activists groups say the death toll was significantly lower but in the hundreds.

The regime's agreement to surrender its chemical weapons stock has dealt a blow to the rebels, who had hoped a U.S. military strike would turn the tide of the fighting in their favor after months of setbacks. Opposition leaders have warned the regime will continue to wield conventional weapons in the civil war, which has left more than 100,000 people dead and displaced millions since the uprising against Assad's rule began in March 2011.

Exclusive Associated Press video showed a helicopter dropping explosives on the village of Habit, followed by pandemonium as villagers and fighters used flashlights as they frantically searched for survivors trapped under the rubble Sunday evening.

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