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Chemical experts start Syria mission amid UN calls for access

Nine disarmament experts from The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were seen leaving their Damascus hotel.

Syria rebels 2013 10 03Enlarge
(AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

Experts tasked with implementing the UN resolution ordering the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal began work Thursday, as the world body demanded access to civilians trapped by the conflict.

Nine disarmament experts from The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons were seen leaving their Damascus hotel in a three-vehicle convoy, heading for an unknown destination.

The nine, part of a team of 19 experts, are overseeing the implementation of a UN resolution ordering the destruction of Syria's deadly chemical weapons arsenal.

Resolution 2118 was passed after gas attacks on the outskirts of Damascus killed hundreds of people on August 21, an atrocity that prompted the United States to threaten military strikes on the Syrian government.

The OPCW team faces a daunting task, as President Bashar al-Assad's regime is understood to have stockpiled more than 1,000 tonnes of the nerve agent sarin, mustard gas and other banned chemical weapons.

Their immediate aim is to disable chemical weapons production sites by late October or early November using "expedient methods" including the use of explosives, sledgehammers or pouring in concrete, an OPCW official said.

It is the first time in the OPCW's history that a mission to destroy chemical weapons is being undertaken in a country embroiled in a civil war.

The Syria conflict has killed more than 115,000 people, forced millions more to flee as refugees and trapped hundreds of thousands.

The UN Security Council on Wednesday demanded immediate and "unhindered" access to these trapped civilians.

Since the beginning of the 30-month uprising, the Council has been deadlocked, with Russia defending Assad's regime, before Resolution 2118 was passed.

Council diplomats said the statement, which is non-binding, would send a strong signal to Assad as the death toll and humanitarian catastrophe grow.

UN aid agencies say there are more than 2.1 million refugees, almost six million are displaced inside Syria and the body has not had access to about two million trapped civilians for months.

The statement says there should be "unhindered humanitarian access" across the conflict lines "and, where appropriate, across borders from neighbouring countries."

But Syria has blocked aid missions from neighbouring countries, saying the supplies will go to rebel forces. Some analysts have expressed doubt rebels will let aid go to government areas.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos has been pressing the Security Council for months to act on the growing crisis.

"Our task now is to turn these strong words into meaningful action," said Amos.

A rights group on Thursday also called on the international community to take urgent action to help political prisoners held in government-run jails.

Human Rights Watch accused Damascus of arbitrarily detaining tens of thousands of people for protesting peacefully.

"Behind the awful brutality of the fighting in Syria is the unseen abuse of political detainees -- arrested, tortured, and even killed for peacefully criticising the government or helping people in need," said HRW's Joe Stork.

Former detainees told the rights group that political prisoners in the jails were regularly beaten, electroshocked and raped by security personnel.

Stork called on the international community to pressure the government, as well as opposition groups which have carried out arbitrary detention, to free these prisoners.

"Those with leverage with the government as well as with opposition forces should press for them to free everyone they are holding unlawfully," he said.

On the ground in Syria, six key rebel factions demanded an Al-Qaeda front group withdraw from the northern town of Azaz on the border with Turkey.

The groups, all Islamists, issued a joint statement urging fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to leave the town, as rebels in central Syria called on the group to leave Homs province.

The statements came amid fresh clashes between ISIL and the mainstream rebel Northern Storm brigade in Azaz.

Clashes between ISIL and non-jihadist rebels have broken out regularly, particularly in northern rebel-held areas.

Syria's rebels initially welcomed the entry of foreign jihadists, but have turned against them in some areas, accusing them of abuses and imposing an extreme interpretation of Islam.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131003/chemical-experts-start-syria-mission-amid-un-calls-access