BEIRUT - Syria won foreign praise on Monday for starting to destroy its chemical arsenal, although an opposition activist said the world was merely giving President Bashar al-Assad time to kill more people with conventional weapons.
An official from the international mission overseeing the stockpile's elimination said Damascus had made an excellent start, and the United States acknowledged its rapid compliance with a UN resolution on destroying chemical weapons as extremely significant.
The official described Sunday's operations in which Syrian forces used cutting torches and angle grinders to render missile warheads and bombs unusable. However, he noted that this was only the start of work that is due to last until mid-2014 and requires the cooperation of all sides.
"It was an excellent first day, with the stress on the word 'first'," the official told Reuters by telephone from Damascus, declining to be named.
Assad's government, fighting a civil war in which more than 100,000 people have died, agreed to destroy the chemical weapons after a sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus killed hundreds of people in August.
While the world's worst chemical weapons attack in 25 years may not be repeated in Syria, both the rebels and Assad's forces continue to kill with conventional weapons daily and foreign governments are desperate to end a conflict that risks spreading across much of the region.
Experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), supported by the United Nations, aim to oversee destruction of the Syria's chemical weapons production and mixing equipment by Nov. 1, and deal with all chemical weapons materials by the end of June 2014.
"There are milestones and tests that lie ahead, and we hope and expect to have continued cooperation of all parties to pass those milestones," the official said.
A GOOD BEGINNING
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday's work was a good beginning and offered rare praise for Assad, a leader Washington insists lost legitimacy when he responded with force to protests against his rule which erupted in March 2011.
"I think it is extremely significant that yesterday, Sunday, within a week of the resolution being passed, some chemical weapons were already being destroyed," Kerry told a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at an Asia-Pacific summit in Indonesia.
"I think it's also credit to the Assad regime for complying rapidly, as they are supposed to," he said. "I'm not going to vouch today for what happens months down the road, but it's a good beginning, and we should welcome a good beginning."
Washington blamed Assad's forces for the chemical attack while Assad accused rebels of carrying it out to provoke Western intervention.