Weapons experts begin Syria mission
The team overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons have begun work as deadly clashes raged on the edge of Damascus.
Their mission - endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution - faces the tightest deadline ever placed before the experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
It was not clear where the inspectors, who arrived in Syria on Tuesday from neighbouring Lebanon, were headed from their hotel in central Damascus. Their work comes against the backdrop of relentless fighting.
On the northern edge of the city, fierce clashes between Syrian troops and al-Qaida-linked fighters killed at least 12 soldiers and pro-government militiamen as the army pressed on with a campaign to dislodge opposition fighters from the capital.
The fighting in the contested district of Barzeh had flared up on Monday, when the army stepped up attacks against opposition forces who have been trying to capture the area for months, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Barzeh is important for rebels trying to take their battle closer to president Bashar Assad's seat of power.
The fighting illustrates the enormous challenges the inspectors - an advance team of 19 from a Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog and 14 UN staff - face as they begin their work.
Within a week, a second group of inspectors is scheduled to join them to form teams that will fan out to individual locations.
They have around nine months to complete their mission, which calls for finding, dismantling and eliminating Assad's estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal.
Experts at The Hague, where the OPCW is based, said the inspectors' priority is to reach the first milestone of helping Syria scrap its ability to manufacture chemical weapons by a Nov. 1 deadline, using every means possible.
Some of the inspectors will be double-checking Syria's initial disclosure of what weapons and chemical precursors it has and where they are located. Others will begin planning the logistics for visits to every site where chemicals or weapons are reported to be stored.
They are empowered to conduct surprise visits to sites they suspect may contain undeclared weapons, and the UN resolution says they must be granted access.