UN experts wrapped up their investigation of alleged gas attacks in Syria on Monday, as a chemical weapons disarmament team arrived in neighbouring Lebanon ahead of their trip to Damascus.
The UN Security Council is to begin talks Monday on a statement about the humanitarian crisis in Syria which could include a disputed call to allow cross-border missions, diplomats said.
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On the ground in Syria, the violence continued, with regime forces launching air raids in the provinces of Homs and Aleppo, and a car bomb exploding in Damascus province.
The UN team of chemical weapons experts, which is on its second mission to Syria to investigate seven alleged attacks, left Syria on Monday afternoon, crossing into Lebanon.
The team has said it hopes to present a final report on the alleged attacks by late October.
Earlier this month it submitted an interim report that confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin in an August 21 attack in the suburbs of Damascus.
The United States threatened military action in response, accusing regime forces of deliberately killing hundreds of civilians with rocket-delivered nerve agents.
Syria denied the allegations but agreed to relinquish its chemical arsenal to head off a strike under a US-Russian deal which was enshrined in a landmark UN resolution.
The team of 20 inspectors from the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons overseeing the agreement arrived in Lebanon on Monday, a day before heading to Syria.
The road between Damascus airport and the Syrian capital is the scene of frequent fighting, so the inspectors will travel by road from Beirut instead.
“At this point, we have absolutely no reason to doubt the information provided by the Syrian regime,” an OPCW official said Sunday.
In his first comments since the UN resolution was passed on Friday, Assad on Sunday told Italy’s Rai News 24 his regime “will comply”.
“Of course we will comply with it, and history proves that we have always honoured all treaties we have signed,” state news agency SANA quoted him as saying.
Assad also said warming relations between the United States and his regime’s ally Iran could benefit Syria and the region, “so long as the United States is honest.”
Shock, tears and mangled bodies
The UN arms resolution calls for the convening of a much-delayed peace conference in Geneva as soon as possible, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon proposing a mid-November date.
Ban pressed for the conference during his first meeting Saturday with Syria’s opposition National Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba, who said he was ready to send a delegation to the meeting, a UN spokesman said.
In his interview, Assad said European countries had no role to play in any peace meeting, an assertion rebuffed by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Monday.
He insisted all five permanent Security Council members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — would be involved.
“Mr Bashar al-Assad can say what he wants,” Fabius told France Inter radio.
The prospects for such a peace conference remain uncertain, however, with Syria insisting Assad’s departure is not on the table, despite it being a key demand of the rebels and their backers.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights meanwhile reported air raids in Homs and Aleppo provinces and said a car bomb in Damascus province “killed and injured at least 10 regime personnel” at a checkpoint.
The Syrian conflict has killed more than 110,000 people since it began in March 2011, displaced millions within Syria and pushed at least two million refugees over the borders.
The Security Council will debate a statement on Monday that would call on Syria to allow cross-border aid missions, something it has opposed in the past.
It was unclear if Russia, a staunch ally of Damascus, would endorse the statement, with diplomats saying it might object to language calling for those who have committed rights violations to be “brought to justice”.
The operation to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal will be one of the largest and most dangerous of its kind.
The arsenal is believed to include more than 1,000 tonnes of sarin, mustard gas and other banned chemicals stored at an estimated 45 sites across the country.
The United Nations and the global chemical weapons watchdog have launched an urgent appeal for experts to join the mission to destroy the weapons by a target date of mid-2014.