DAMASCUS — A chemical disarmament team crossed into Syria on Tuesday to begin the daunting task of inventorying the country's arsenal of the banned weapons in readiness for its destruction.
The team from the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons arrived in Syria a day after the departure of a team of UN inspectors, who had been investigating a series of alleged chemical attacks.
Syria's information minister meanwhile insisted that President Bashar al-Assad would stay in office and that he had the option to run for another term in elections next year.
Assad's departure is a key demand of the opposition, who insist it must be a pillar of a mooted peace conference in Geneva.
The team of 20 inspectors from The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is implementing a UN resolution ordering the elimination of Syria's arsenal.
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 tonnes 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 weapons experts is probing seven alleged gas attacks and 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 crossing into Syria. It is unable to fly to Damascus because the road between the airport and the city is the scene of frequent fighting.
Syria has already submitted detailed accounting of its chemical arsenal and Assad said in an interview with Italy's Rai News 24 last week that his government "will comply" with the UN resolution on the destruction of the weapons.
"History proves that we have always honoured all treaties we have signed," he was quoted as saying.
The OPCW inspectors will be verifying the documents submitted by Damascus.
"At this point, we have absolutely no reason to doubt the information provided by the Syrian regime," an OPCW official said on Sunday.
Peace conference bid
The UN resolution on the deal also calls for the convening of a much-delayed peace conference in Geneva as soon as possible, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon setting a target date of mid-November.
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.
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.
"Syria is staying put: the state, the nation, the people and the president. This is the Syrians' choice," Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi told journalists on Tuesday.
"All the people call for President Bashar al-Assad to be president of this state, whatever the opposition, the Americans and the traitors say."
Zohbi added that Assad has the "right to take a decision" on whether he will run for a new term in mid-2014, when his current mandate expires.
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, speaking at the UN on Monday, also insisted no pre-conditions be set for the planned peace conference.
"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," he 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 its borders.
On the ground, violence raged on Tuesday in flashpoints around the country, including north and east Damascus, and Aleppo province in the north, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
In the north, at least 20 rebel fighters, including Al-Qaeda loyalists of Al-Nusra Front, were killed in a fierce bombardment by the army aimed at forcing open a new supply route between central Syria and the city of Aleppo, the Observatory said.