DAMASCUS - International disarmament experts were to begin cataloguing Syria's vast arsenal of chemical weapons Wednesday, checking a list of sites provided by Damascus and conducting on the spot tests ahead of its destruction
The 19-strong team from The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) arrived in Damascus Tuesday to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2118 ordering the elimination of Syria's chemical arsenal by mid-2014.
The mission was to begin work a day after Syria's opposition warned of a "humanitarian disaster" in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyet al-Sham, one of the areas reportedly targeted in an August 21 sarin attack that killed hundreds of people.
It also comes after Syria's information minister insisted that President Bashar al-Assad would stay in office and could 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 Geneva peace conference.
The disarmament team includes 19 OPCW inspectors and 14 UN staffers who drove to a five-star Damascus hotel in a 20-vehicle UN convoy from the Lebanese capital, Beirut.
On arrival, the team set up a logistics base.
"In the coming days, their efforts are expected to focus on verifying information provided by the Syrian authorities and the initial planning phase of helping the country destroy its chemical weapons production facilities," a UN statement said.
This should be completed by November 1, it added.
The task is huge, as Syria's 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 mission is the first in OPCW history to take place in a country wracked by civil war.
The OPCW group arrived as a team of UN experts left after probing seven alleged gas attacks.
The UN experts hope to present a final report by late October, after an initial one in September confirmed sarin was used in the August 21 attacks.
The UN resolution ordering the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons came after the United States threatened military action, accusing Assad's forces of deliberately killing hundreds of civilians with rocket-delivered nerve agents.
Production sites top of the list
Syria denied this but agreed to relinquish its arsenal under a US-Russian deal, effectively heading off a strike.
The OPCW has said it has no reason to doubt information provided by Syria on its chemical weapons and Assad has said he will comply with the terms of the resolution.
Top on the inspection list will be production sites due to be disabled by late October or early November.
"According to the OPCW-UN Security Council deadline, the entire chemical weapons stockpile must be eliminated in the first half of next year," said the UN statement.
Security Council Resolution 2118 also calls for a peace conference as soon as possible in Geneva, and UN chief Ban Ki-moon set a target date of mid-November.
However, the prospects for such a conference remain uncertain, with Syria insisting Assad's departure is not up for discussion, despite it being a key opposition demand.
"Syria is staying put: the state, the nation, the people and the president. This is the Syrians' choice," Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi said 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."
The opposition National Coalition, meanwhile, accused the regime of waging a "systematic campaign to starve and displace" residents from the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Moadamiyet al-Sham.
It said the suburb southwest of the city had been under siege for months and that at least four children and three women had starved to death.
The Coalition called on the international community to open "safe humanitarian corridors" into the suburb.
More than 115,000 people have been killed in Syria's 30-month conflict, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
More than six million others have been forced to flee their homes.