by William M. Reilly
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 30 (Xinhua) -- Events in Syria took a turn on Monday with the initial chemical weapons inspection team departing Damascus as Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) begins its assignment Tuesday to eliminate such munitions from the country.
"The team of chemical weapons investigators led by Professor Ake Sellstrom which was in Syria to investigate allegations of chemical weapons there has just left the country, after completing its six-day mission," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said at a daily news briefing here, adding the team will now move to finalize its report hopefully by late October.
Sellstrom is a Swedish scientist, an expert in chemical weapons.
This team is separate from the OPCW operation mandated by the UN Security Council in Resolution 2118 Friday night to rid Syria of chemical weapons by the middle of next year. The Sellstrom team was set up in response to allegations of chemical weapons being used in Syria by both the government and opposition forces.
It was only to determine the use of chemical weapons, not who used them.
Its initial assignment was to determine if chemical weapons were used on March 19 in Khan al-Asal and two other sites whose locations were not released. It was suggested the additional sites were not identified for security reasons.
However, while the Sellstrom team was in Damascus on Aug. 21, an alleged chemical weapons attack in Ghouta near Damascus killed hundreds -- perhaps as many as 1,400 people including women and children. Televised images of bodies shocked the world.
The Sellstrom team was ordered to "prioritize" that site and go to Ghouta within days, despite a sniper attack during the first attempt to reach the site.
After Ghouta, it returned to OPCW headquarters in The Hague. Samples were dispatched to four laboratories in Europe, interviews and other evidence were collated, catalogued and analyzed in The Hague.
The team then reported back to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who set up the UN fact-finding group in March at the request of the Syrian government, that chemical weapons had been used in Ghouta. He relayed the information to the Security Council. The team then returned to Syria to finish its assignment, but, as Nesirky said Monday, it failed to reach Khan al-Asal.
Asked how it could complete the mission without going to the site designated, Nesirky said documentary information or data from witnesses could be obtained without going to such an area. He also pointed out the degradation over time of some site evidence.
The Ghouta attack prompted U.S. President Barack Obama, who said Washington had knowledge that the Syrian government carried out the attack, to threaten military strikes against Syria.
Russia, Syria's main supporter at the Security Council, said it had evidence rebels carried out the chemical weapon attack in Ghouta to gain sympathy.
Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister and a former Moscow envoy to the United Nations, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry then embarked on an intensive two weeks of diplomacy that led to the compromise Security Council resolution Friday.
Now, under that accord, carrying threats of further action under the UN Charter's Chapter VII allowing the use of force, a new mission gets underway.
The advance team of 20 personnel going into Syria Tuesday is the vanguard of a mission, as Nesirky described it to be "on a tight timetable," to determine the size and locations of Syria's recently declared chemical weapons stockpile.
Damascus admitted it had chemical weapons, a necessary step, when it acceded to the OPCW, through the Chemical Weapons Convention, earlier this month. Another step in the process was for it to disclose the stockpile and to aid not only in its destruction but help the OPCW team destroy the equipment used to manufacture the weapons and delivery systems for them.
"This joint operation is indeed scheduled to begin tomorrow ( Tuesday)," Nesirky said. "Obviously we are not giving exact details."
The team is comprised of technical experts "with UN logistical and security support to get down to work quite quickly," he said. "The recommendations for how that larger mission will take place will be put together in the coming eight or nine days by the secretary-general in close consultation with the OPCW.
"Last Friday's Security Council resolution and the work that stems from that and the executive council decision from the OPCW are major steps and now we are made to look beyond that at the bigger picture; that's the humanitarian track and also the political track."
As for the humanitarian track, the spokesman said, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson spoke Monday to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) executive committee in Geneva, drawing attention to the needs of 2.1 million Syrian refugees who have registered or are waiting to register in neighboring countries."
"He (Eliasson) said the impact of the refugees on neighboring countries has been very significant with the public services becoming severely over-stretched," Nesirky said.
"Antonio Guterres, the high commissioner for refugees, said that Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq have been sheltering an unrelenting flood of Syrian refugees, saving lives and providing protection," the spokesman said. "They've been generous hosts to their neighbors but all of them have been stretched to their limits."
About 4 million other people have been displaced within Syria, during the 2.5-year-old conflict that has claimed more than 100, 000 lives.
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