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OPCW inspectors begin UN mission to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons

International inspectors have begun their work overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. Meanwhile, deadly clashes are raging on the edge of Damascus.

The inspectors' mission - endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution to scrap Syria's chemical stockpile by mid-2014 - faces the tightest deadline ever placed on experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). It remained unclear where the inspectors, who arrived in Syria on Tuesday from neighboring Lebanon, would head after leaving their hotel in central Damascus, the capital.

A statement from the United Nations laid out the inspectors' mission: "In the coming days, their efforts are expected to focus on verifying information provided by the Syrian authorities and the initial planning phase of helping the country destroy its chemical weapons production facilities."

The US threatened military action after it had accused Syria's regime of killing over 1,000 civilians with nerve agents in an attack on August 21. Syrian officials denied the allegation but agreed to relinquish the regime's chemical arsenal. A US-Russian deal enshrined in a landmark UN Security Council resolution last Friday paved the way for the arrival of the OPCW inspection team.

'Must be eliminated'

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he would comply and Syria has turned over documents detailing its arsenal. OPCW officials will cross-check the information in Syria.

Production sets top the inspection list, with the idea of disabling them by the beginning of November in anticipation of the crew's tight deadline: nine months to complete its mission, which calls for finding, dismantling and eliminating Assad's estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal. The inspectors may conduct surprise visits to sites they suspect of containing undeclared weapons, with the UN resolution requiring unfettered access.

"According to the OPCW-UN Security Council deadline, the entire chemical weapons stockpile must be eliminated in the first half of next year," the statement from the United Nations declared.

The OPCW mission consists of an advance team of 19 inspectors from The Hague-based chemical weapons watchdog and 14 UN staff members. Within a week, a second group of inspectors plan to join the team already in the country to form teams that will fan out to individual locations. The mission represents the first-ever OPCW incursion into a country engaged in an active civil war.

More than 115,000 people have died in the 30-month conflict, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The conflict has forced more than 2 million people to flee, most of them finding refuge in neighboring Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

mkg/kms (AFP, AP)