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Syria probe ends ahead of disarmament mission

An opposition fighter in the Jubaila neighbourhood of Deir Ezzor on September 30, 2013
An opposition fighter in the Jubaila neighbourhood of Deir Ezzor on September 30, 2013

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.

President Bashar al-Assad has insisted Syria will comply with a UN resolution under which his regime must turn over its chemical weapons for destruction.

In New York, his foreign minister accused Western states of supplying chemical weapons to the Syrian opposition, in an address to the UN General Assembly.

Meanwhile the foreign ministers of Syria's neighbours Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey pleaded at a meeting of the UN refugee agency for more international support to deal with an influx of refugees.

Graphic locating chemical weapons facilities in Syria
Graphic locating chemical weapons facilities in Syria

The Syrian war has killed more than 110,000 people and forced more than 2.1 Syrians to flee to neighbouring countries since it erupted in March 2011.

The UN Security Council is to begin talks Monday on a statement about the humanitarian crisis which could include a disputed call to allow cross-border missions, diplomats said.

On the ground, the violence continued with regime forces launching air raids in the provinces of Homs and Aleppo, and a car bomb exploding in Damascus province.

A UN team of chemical weapons experts left Syria after an almost week-long mission to probe seven alleged attacks, heading for Beirut on route to their next destination.

They are expected to draft a final report on the alleged attacks by late October, after an initial one that confirmed the use of sarin gas in an August 21 attack in the suburbs of Damascus.

The United States threatened military action following that attack, accusing regime forces of killing hundreds with chemicals.

A convoy of UN vehicles carrying a team of experts at the Lebanon-Syria border following their arrival on September 30, 2013
A convoy of UN vehicles carrying a team of experts at the Lebanon-Syria border following their arrival on September 30, 2013

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 on their way to Syria.

On Tuesday they are expected to hold talks with Syrian officials in Damascus to prepare for an ambitious and dangerous mission.

"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" with plans to destroy Syria's arsenal.

"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.

Bid for a peace conference

An opposition fighter walks down rubble in the Jubaila neighbourhood of Deir Ezzor on September 30, 2013
An opposition fighter walks down rubble in the Jubaila neighbourhood of Deir Ezzor on September 30, 2013

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.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told the UN General Assembly on Monday his government supports a negotiated settlement but rejects conditions ahead of the peace talks.

"It is now for those who claim to support a political solution in Syria to stop all hostile practices and policies against Syria, and to head to Geneva without preconditions," Muallem said.

He also accused unnamed Western states of financing rebels trying to topple Assad's regime, and providing them with chemical arms.

"Terrorists who used poisonous gases in my country have received chemical agents from regional and Western countries that are well known to all of us," he said referring to the rebels.

As fighting raged on the ground, a special meeting of the UN refugee agency UNHCR heard foreign ministers of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey spell out their needs to deal with a growing influx of refugees from Syria.

"We are calling on the international community to bear its responsibility," said Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour told the gathering.

Lebanon is a country of just 4.4 million people hosting some 760,000 registered Syrian refugees, meaning as much as a quarter of its population is now Syrian.

Jordan hosts over 522,000 Syrian refugees, representing around 10 percent of its population, and the overflowing al-Zaatari camp has swelled to become the country's fourth largest city.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 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.

Syria's 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.

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