Air raids, clashes near Syria chemical weapons site
Damascus, October 12, 2013
Syrian air force warplanes bombarded rebel-held targets close to a major chemical weapons facility on Friday in fighting that highlights the perils facing an international mission to eliminate President Bashar al-Assad's chemical arsenal.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, is due to visit 20 sites across Syria to verify the destruction of 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents and precursors.
The mission in the midst of a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people is an unprecedented challenge for the OPCW, whose members came under fire near Damascus in August.
The OPCW experts have visited three undisclosed sites in their first week of operation and say that Syrian authorities have been cooperating. But they will face great challenges reaching locations in rebel-held or disputed territory.
The air raids struck the town of Safira, on the edge of a sprawling military complex believed to hold chemical weapons production facilities, after overnight clashes between rebel fighters and Assad forces in a nearby village, activists said.
The army has fought hard to retain control of the Safira military complex and is now trying to recapture the town from rebel brigades including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Unless they succeed in pushing those fighters back, any attempt by the OPCW experts to visit Safira would be risky.
"Right now it would be impossible with the clashes and the air strikes, especially as there is a strong presence of the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, who don't believe in anything called the international community," said Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu appealed on Wednesday for temporary ceasefires to allow the mission to operate safely in conflict areas, but Abdulrahman said the Nusra Front and Islamic State fighters would not respect calls for a halt in hostilities.-Reuters