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UN weapons inspectors enter Syria


The UN chemical weapons inspectors have arrived in Syria (AP)

The UN chemical weapons inspectors have arrived in Syria (AP)

The UN chemical weapons inspectors have arrived in Syria (AP)

An advance group of chemical weapons inspectors have arrived in Syria to start overseeing the destruction of president Bashar Assad's arsenal.

Twenty inspectors from a Netherlands-based watchdog crossed into Syria from neighbouring Lebanon on their way to Damascus to begin their complex mission of finding, dismantling and ultimately destroying an estimated 1,000-tons of chemicals.

They have about nine months to complete the task, which has been endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution that calls for Syria's chemical stockpile to be eliminated by mid-2014. It is the shortest deadline that experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have ever faced in any nation, and their first mission in a country at war.

The team arrived in Damascus in a 19-vehicle convoy escorted from the border by two representatives from the Syrian Foreign Ministry.

Experts at The Hague, where the OPCW is based, said the priority is to achieve the first milestone of helping Syria scrap its ability to manufacture chemical weapons by a November 1 deadline, using every means possible. That may include smashing mixing equipment with sledgehammers, blowing up delivery missiles, driving tanks over empty shells or filling them with concrete, and running machines without lubricant so they seize up.

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 location where chemicals or weapons are stored.

Within a week, a second group of inspectors is scheduled to arrive - fewer than 100 combined - and form teams that will fan out to individual sites. Their routes are secret - both for their safety and because Syria has the right not to reveal its military secrets, including base locations.

The inspectors' mission was born out of the deadly chemical attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus on August 21 which prompted the Obama administration to threaten missile strikes against the Assad regime, touching off weeks of frantic diplomacy that ended with the UN resolution to purge Syria of its chemical weapons program.

The resolution also endorsed a roadmap for political "transition" in Syria adopted by key nations in June 2012, and it called for an international peace conference in Geneva to be convened "as soon as possible" to implement it.

The rebel movement on the ground is riven by fissures, both ideological and political. Those differences have burst to the fore in recent months as Islamic extremist rebel brigades associated with al-Qaida have battled more mainstream rebel factions nominally linked to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

Al-Qaida militants have in the past year emerged as some of the most organised and successful fighting forces on the opposition side in Syria.

Syria's conflict has killed more than 100,000 people and forced more than two million more to flee the country since March 2011.

On Tuesday, a Syrian activist group that tracks the conflict put the death toll at more than 115,000. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said it had documented 115,206 people killed in the conflict. That tally includes 28,804 regime troops, 18,228 pro-government militiamen, and at least 21,531 rebels.