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Damascus - A disarmament team is to arrive on Tuesday in Damascus on a mission to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal, a day after United Nations experts wrapped up their investigation of alleged gas attacks.
The team of 20 inspectors from The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is implementing a UN resolution that ordered the elimination of Syria's chemical arms.
The operation to rid Syria of chemical weapons by a target date of mid-2014 will be one of the largest and most dangerous of its kind.
The arsenal is believed to include more than 1 000 tons of sarin, mustard gas and other banned chemicals stored at an estimated 45 sites across the war-torn country.
The outgoing UN team of chemical arms experts that has ended its second mission to Syria to probe seven alleged gas attacks hopes to present a final report by late October.
Earlier this month it submitted an interim report that confirmed the use of the nerve agent sarin in August 21 attacks on the outskirts of Damascus.
The United States threatened military action in response, accusing forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of deliberately killing hundreds of civilians with rocket-delivered nerve agents.
Syria denied the allegations but agreed to relinquish its chemical arsenal, effectively heading off a strike, under a US-Russian deal which was enshrined in the landmark UN resolution.
The OPCW team arrived in Beirut on Monday before it crosses into Syria. It is unable to fly to Damascus because the road between the airport and the city is the scene of frequent fighting.
“At this point, we have absolutely no reason to doubt the information provided by the Syrian regime,” an OPCW official said on 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”.
“History proves that we have always honoured all treaties we have signed,” he was quoted as saying.
The UN arms resolution also 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.
Ban pressed for the conference during his first meeting Saturday with Syria's opposition National Coalition chief Ahmad Jarba, who said he was ready to send a delegation to the meeting, a UN spokesman said.
In his interview, Assad said European countries had no role to play in any peace meeting, an assertion rebuffed by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Monday.
He insisted all five permanent Security Council members - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - would be involved.
“Mr Bashar al-Assad can say what he wants,” Fabius told France Inter radio.
The prospects for such a peace conference remain uncertain, however, with Syria insisting Assad's departure is not on the table, despite it being a key demand of the rebels and their backers.
Speaking at the UN General Assembly on Monday, Syria's foreign minister insisted no conditions be set.
“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,” Walid Moualem said.
The Syrian conflict has killed more than 110 000 people since it began in March 2011, displaced millions within Syria and pushed at least two million refugees over the borders.
The United Nations and the global chemical weapons watchdog have launched an urgent appeal for experts to join the mission to destroy the weapons.