BEIRUT (AP) — International inspectors racing to meet a mid-2014 deadline to eliminate Syria's chemical stockpile said Thursday they have made "encouraging initial progress" in their mission, and hope to start onsite inspections and begin disabling equipment within the next week.
An advance team of disarmament experts and U.N. staff members arrived in Syria on Tuesday to begin laying the foundations for a broader operation charged with dismantling and ultimately destroying President Bashar Assad's chemical program over the next nine months. The first step in the mission — endorsed by a United Nations Security Council resolution last week — is to scrap Syria's capacity to manufacture chemical weapons by Nov. 1.
In a statement, the team said it has "made encouraging initial progress, following the first working day of meetings with the Syrian authorities."
"Documents handed over yesterday by the Syrian Government look promising, according to team members, but further analysis, particularly of technical diagrams, will be necessary and some more questions remain to be answered," it said.
It added that its desire to begin onsite inspections and disabling equipment depends on the work of technical groups established together with Syrian experts. Those groups, the statement said, are working to iron out the details in three areas crucial to the mission's success: verifying the initial information Syria gave on its chemical program, ensuring the safety of the inspectors, and practical arrangements for implementing the plan.
Early Thursday, a convoy of three U.N. vehicles left a hotel in central Damascus with nine experts from the Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog, but it was not clear where they were heading. The team now consists of an advance group of 19 experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and 14 U.N. staff members who arrived on Tuesday. A second group of inspectors is to join them within a week.
Their daily work has been shrouded in as much secrecy as is possible in Syria. Their mission stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on opposition-held Damascus suburbs in which the U.N. has determined the nerve agent sarin was used.
The U.S. and its allies accuse the Syrian government of being responsible for the attack, while Damascus blames the rebels. The U.S. has said it killed 1,400 people. Death toll estimates by activists and rights groups are significantly lower, but still in the hundreds.