BEIRUT ó International disarmament experts on Sunday began dismantling and destroying Syriaís chemical weapons arsenal and the equipment used to produce it, taking the first concrete step in their colossal task of eliminating the countryís chemical stockpile by mid-2014, an official said.
The inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have about nine months to purge President Bashar Assadís regime of its chemical program. The mission, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, faces the tightest deadline in the watchdog groupís history and must simultaneously navigate Syriaís bloody civil war.
Sunday marked the fifth day that an advance team of around 20 inspectors have been in the country and the first day that involved actually disabling and destroying weapons and machinery, an official on the joint OPCW-U.N. mission said.
The production equipment included filling and mixing machinery, some of it mobile, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Syrians are responsible for the actual physical demolition of the materials, while OPCW inspectors monitor the process and verify what is being destroyed, the official said. He declined to provide details or say where the work took place.
This is just the beginning of a complicated process to eliminate Syriaís estimated 1,000-ton chemical weapons stockpile and the facilities that created it. Damascus developed its chemical program in the 1980s and 1990s, building an arsenal that is believed to contain mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin VX and tabun.
The production and storage facilities are understood to be scattered around the country.
The OPCW-U.N. advance team arrived last week to lay the foundations for a broader operation of nearly 100 inspectors. Those already in Syria have been double-checking the Assad regimeís initial disclosure of what weapons and chemical precursors it has and where they are located.
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