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Weapons team cites progress in Syria

| Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 7:54 p.m.

International inspectors racing to eliminate Syria's chemical weapon stockpile said on Thursday they have made “encouraging initial progress” in their mission, and they hope to start onsite inspections and to begin disabling equipment within a week.

An advance team of disarmament experts 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 during the next nine months. The first step in the undertaking — endorsed by a United Nations Security Council resolution last week — is to scrap Syria's capacity to manufacture chemical weapons by Nov. 1.

The team reported its progress in a statement issued after the first day of meetings with Syrian authorities. Documents handed over by the Syrian government “look promising,” the statement said. But more analysis, particularly of technical diagrams, was planned, and “more questions remain to be answered.”

The onsite inspections and the disabling of equipment depend 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: verifying the initial information Syria provided on its chemical program, ensuring the safety of the inspectors and finalizing 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. For now, the team consists of an advance group of 19 experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and 14 U.N. staff members. A second group of inspectors is to join them within a week to raise the total number to nearly 100.

Their mission stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus in which the U.N. has determined the nerve agent sarin was used. The United States and its allies accuse the Syrian government of being responsible for the attack, while Damascus blames the rebels.

The Obama administration threatened to launch punitive missile strikes against Syria, prompting frantic diplomatic efforts to forestall an attack. Those efforts concluded with last week's unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons.

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