Smoke rises from the battlefield as opposition fighters carry out an attack Monday on the Wadi al-Deef military post at the frontline in Maaret al-Numan in the Idlib province countryside of Syria. With much of the northern countryside now in opposition hands, a cat-and-mouse game has emerged over the past year as the rebels try to cut the government supply lines to the regime's remaining troops in the north. (AP)
Syrian fighter jets bomb rebel-held areas in north
BEIRUT — Syrian government warplanes bombed rebel positions near a strategic northern city on Tuesday, activists said, as international inspectors toured production and storage sites of the country's chemical weapons arsenal.
The rebels captured Maaret al-Numan a year ago, after systematically seizing the army's outposts in the city, along astride a major supply route linking the capital, Damascus with the contested Idlib region and Syria's largest city, Aleppo.
Fighting has flared up there in recent days, even as government forces and opposition fighters remain locked in a bloody, block-by-block fight for Aleppo since rebels launched an assault on it 15 months ago.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says fighter jets twice hit opposition-held areas Tuesday near the city, and heavy fighting then broke out at a nearby army base. The group says there were casualties in the fighting but gave no specifics.
The fight for the base is part of the ongoing, broader struggle for control of northern Syria where the opposition controls large swathes of territory captured from President Bashar Assad's troops. — AP
THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS — The chief of the global chemical weapons watchdog said Tuesday the organization is sending a second team of inspectors to Syria to expand its high-stakes, high-risk mission to rid Syria of its poison gas stockpile.
Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, spoke to the group’s 41-nation Executive Council at the start of a four-day meeting in The Hague. The organization’s inspectors are in Syria to verify and destroy the country’s estimated 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, in the midst of a two-year civil war.
Uzumcu called initial Syrian cooperation with the team last week — providing more detail of the country’s chemical weapons and beginning to destroy them and facilities to produce them — “a constructive beginning for what will nonetheless be a long and difficult process,” according to an OPCW statement.
An advance team of 35 OPCW and U.N. staff originally traveled to Damascus last week. Some OPCW staff have already returned to the organization’s headquarters to report on their talks with officials from President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus.
Uzumcu said he will soon sign an agreement between the OPCW and the United Nations to provide security and logistics to the inspection teams.
In Damascus, ruling Baath party lawmaker Walid al-Zoubi said the chemical weapons “have become a heavy burden on the state and are not a strategic defensive stock anymore” and the country is ready to dispose of them.
“Our defensive strategic reserve is much stronger than the chemicals,” al-Zoubi told The Associated Press. “For this reason, Syria now has to get rid of this chemical inventory.”
Uzumcu did not specify how many people would be in the second team, but in a letter to the U.N. Security Council obtained by The Associated Press, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended Monday that approximately 100 UN and OPCW staff eventually make up the mission.
He said that the international community’s aim of destroying Syria’s chemical weapons program by mid-2014 will require “an operation the likes of which, quite simply, have never been tried before,” with greater operational and security risks because of the speed required.
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Albert Aji in Damascus and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.