Official highlights security concern for Syria weapons inspectors

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Car bombs and mortar shells have exploded close to the hotel where chemical weapons inspectors are staying in the Syrian capital in recent days, but officials said Thursday there is no way of knowing if the team is being deliberately targeted.

In the past five days, mortar rounds have twice exploded close to the hotel and car bombs have been detonated, Malik Ellahi, a senior official at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, told a small group of reporters at the organization’s headquarters.

The blasts underscore the risky nature of the team’s work amid ongoing fighting in Syria’s devastating civil war, but have not prevented progress.

“In terms of the security situation there are always concerns but the team so far has, with the cooperation of the Syrian authorities, managed to conduct its work unimpeded,” Ellahi said.

The OPCW won the Nobel Peace Prize last week for its work in attempting to rid the world of chemical weapons.

It is working with the United Nations in an unprecedented disarmament mission in Syria, attempting to destroy the country’s chemical arsenal by mid-2014 - the first time its inspectors have been sent into the heart of a civil war.

Ellahi said the team is approaching the halfway mark of the first phase of its mission - to verify Syria’s initial declaration of its weapons program and render production and chemical mixing facilities inoperable by Nov. 1. The team already has visited 11 locations since it started work Oct. 1 and carried out destruction work at six of them.

In the first phase of the disarmament plan, inspectors are making production facilities inoperable by smashing control panels on machines and are destroying empty munitions.

“Cheap, quick and low-tech. Nothing fancy,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said of the destruction activities so far. Later in the mission, the work gets more complex and dangerous when actual chemical weapons have to be destroyed. Negotiations are still underway as to how and where that will happen.

So far, inspectors have found no discrepancies between what Syria declared when it signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention last month and also have found no “weaponized” chemical munitions - shells ready and capable of delivering poison gas or nerve agents.

One of the key issues facing the team is access to sites close to rebel-held areas. The organization has said it may have to negotiate short-term cease-fires to get to certain sites.

Ellahi said “few” of the more than 20 locations the inspectors have to visit will be tough to access.