November 1, 2013

Israel strikes Russian weapons shipment in Syria

Meanwhile, the Syrian government completes its destruction of equipment used to produce chemical weapons.

By Zeina Karam And Mike Corder
The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, people try to extinguish a fire on the roof of a building, allegedly caused by shelling in Homs, Syria, on Thursday. President Bashar Assad’s government met a key deadline in an ambitious plan to eliminate Syria’s entire chemical weapons stockpile by mid-2014 and avoid international military action.

The Associated Press/Shaam News Network via AP Video

It’s not yet clear how and where the arsenal will be destroyed, but carrying out the work in Syria or transporting the chemical weapons out of the country for destruction elsewhere are both fraught with risks amid the ongoing civil war. The country is believed to have around 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons.

Assad has so far met all required deadlines according to the strict timeline, demonstrating his willingness to go to great lengths to avoid international military action.

“This is a clear indication of the Syrian government’s wish to cooperate and abide by its commitments,” said Syrian lawmaker Issam Khalil. He said Syria knows “full well that the U.S. has not ceased its hostile policies toward Syria and will attempt to exploit any excuse – however small and inconsequential – to carry out a military strike against Syria.”

The U.S.-Russian deal to destroy Syria’s stockpile averted a U.S. military strike against the Syrian government that appeared certain in August, following a chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds the U.S. blamed on Assad.

By making him a partner in implementing the disarmament deal, the agreement appears to have restored some of Assad’s legitimacy while angering his opponents, who now balk at attending political transition talks the U.S. hopes will begin in Geneva in November.

No final date has been set for the talks, and there have been disagreements among opposition groups on whether to attend or not, and the conditions for taking part. Syria’s main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, postponed its general council meeting in Istanbul from Friday to Nov. 10, pending further discussions on the highly divisive talks.

U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, currently in Damascus, has urged both sides to come to the talks without preconditions. But both have placed seemingly unrealistic conditions for attending.

At a Senate hearing in Washington on Thursday, Sen. John McCain said Assad, who was about to be toppled a year ago, has “turned the tide” while continuing to slaughter innocent civilians.

Fighting continued at a high pace across many parts of the country, including in the town of Safira, in northern Aleppo province. Experts say the town is home to a chemical weapons production facility, as well as storage sites.

Activists said troops were advancing Thursday in the town, capturing several neighborhoods and causing casualties on both sides.

Also on Thursday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based Syria watchdog, said more than 120,000 people have been killed since the start of the country’s conflict nearly three years ago. In July, the U.N. 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.

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, the chemical weapons agency 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.

Commenting on the two sites, OPCW spokesman Michael 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 equipment in one of the sites was moved to another location that inspectors did visit.

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