Kerry confident date for Syria talks will be set within days

Experts have verified all but one of country’s declared chemical weapons sites

Free Syrian Army fighters place a mortar on a blanket in Jabal al-Akrad area in Syria’s northwestern Latakia province. Photograph: Khattab Abdulaa/Reuters

Free Syrian Army fighters place a mortar on a blanket in Jabal al-Akrad area in Syria’s northwestern Latakia province. Photograph: Khattab Abdulaa/Reuters

Thu, Nov 7, 2013, 14:06

US secretary of state John Kerry said today he was confident a date could be set within days for long-delayed international peace talks aimed at finding a political solution to Syria’s civil war.

Mr Kerry, who was visiting Amman for talks with Jordan’s King Abdullah, was speaking two days after the United States and Russia failed to agree on a date for the talks.

Meanwhile, experts have verified all but one of Syria’s 23 declared chemical weapons sites after receiving video and photographic evidence that shows a facility near the contested northern city of Aleppo has been dismantled and abandoned.

The joint mission by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations, which is overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal, visited 21 of the sites last month but were unable to visit two - one in Aleppo province - because of security fears over fighting in the area.

Meanwhile government forces backed by fighters from two Shia militias - Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade - seized control of the suburb of Sabina south of Damascus, according to activists based in Britain. The Sana state news agency also reported the government’s capture of Sabina, and said the areas had been used as a base to smuggle weapons and ammunition to rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus.

The Syrian government provided the weapons inspectors with photographs and footage of the facility near Aleppo that confirmed the site has been dismantled and abandoned, the OPCW-UN mission said in a statement on Thursday. It added that the building bore signs of “extensive battle damage”

The images were shot with a tamperproof camera that inspectors had fitted with a GPS system so that the location of the camera could be tracked, the statement said.

The photos and video have been authenticated by international inspectors. The OPCW-UN mission has not disclosed the location of the last remaining site the inspectors need to verify.

The statement marked a step forward for the inspectors, who are racing to meet a mid-2014 deadline to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme.

Last week, the inspectors said President Bashar al-Assad’s government had met the November 1st deadline to destroy or “render inoperable” all chemical weapon production facilities and machinery for mixing chemicals into poison gas and filling munitions, even though two sites had not been inspected because of fighting in the country’s civil war.

The organisation said at the time that Syria had declared the two inaccessible sites had already been abandoned and all equipment moved to other sites that had been inspected.

Syria is believed to possess around 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and sarin.

The agreement for Syria to relinquish its chemical arsenal warded off possible US military strikes in the aftermath of a deadly August 21st chemical weapon attack on rebel-held Damascus suburbs.

Washington and its allies accuse the Syrian government of being responsible for the attack, while Damascus blames rebels.

Agencies