Inspectors report progress over Syria chemical weapons

DAMASCUS (AFP) - International inspectors were on Friday gearing up to disable the chemical weapons programme in war-hit Syria after reporting "encouraging" progress in a day of meetings with regime officials.

The Syrian regime and its armed opponents have both been accused of carrying out numerous atrocities in the 30-month conflict, which began as a popular uprising and has since snowballed into a full-blown war that has killed 115,000.

In a television interview, President Bashar al-Assad again denied having perpetrated August 21 chemical attacks on the outskirts of Damascus that killed hundreds and prompted Washington to threaten military action.

Syria's chemical arsenal - to be destroyed under a UN resolution - were in the hands of "special forces" who were the only ones capable of using them, Assad said.

"Preparing these weapons is a complex technical operation... and a special procedure is necessary to use them which requires a central order from the army chief of staff. As a result it is impossible that they were used," he said.

A team of inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations has been tasked with implementing the resolution to destroy the banned arsenal by mid-2014.

They arrived in Syria on Tuesday, and reported "encouraging initial progress" after a day of meetings with the authorities on Thursday.

"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.

The team said it hopes to begin on-site inspections and the initial disabling of equipment "within the next week".

The 19-member OPCW team faces a daunting task, as Syria is understood to have more than 1,000 tonnes of the nerve agent sarin, mustard gas and other banned arms at dozens of sites.

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

It is The Hague-based organisation's first mission in a country embroiled in a civil war.

The conflict has forced 2.1 million Syrians to flee their homeland, and nearly another six million people are displaced inside the country, hundreds of thousands trapped in besieged towns and neighbourhoods.