Syria makes "excellent" start on chemical disarmament, official says


* Kerry praises Assad for rapid implementation

* Experts hope for continued cooperation from Syria

* U.S.-Russia push for Geneva peace talks

* Syrian opposition says deal will let Assad keep killing

By Dominic Evans

BEIRUT, Oct 7 (Reuters) - Syria won foreign praise on Mondayfor starting to destroy its chemical arsenal, although anopposition activist said the world was merely giving PresidentBashar al-Assad time to kill more people with conventionalweapons.

An official from the international mission overseeing thestockpile's elimination said Damascus had made an excellentstart, and the United States acknowledged its rapid compliancewith a U.N. resolution on destroying chemical weapons asextremely significant.

The official described Sunday's operations in which Syrianforces used cutting torches and angle grinders to render missilewarheads and bombs unusable. However, he noted that this wasonly the start of work that is due to last until mid-2014 andrequires 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 than100,000 people have died, agreed to destroy the chemical weaponsafter a sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus killedhundreds of people in August.

While the world's worst chemical weapons attack in 25 yearsmay not be repeated in Syria, both the rebels and Assad's forcescontinue to kill with conventional weapons daily and foreigngovernments are desperate to end a conflict that risks spreadingacross much of the region.

Experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition ofChemical Weapons (OPCW), supported by the United Nations, aim tooversee destruction of the Syria's chemical weapons productionand mixing equipment by Nov. 1, and deal with all chemicalweapons materials by the end of June 2014.

"There are milestones and tests that lie ahead, and we hopeand expect to have continued cooperation of all parties to passthose milestones," the official said.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday's work was agood beginning and offered rare praise for Assad, a leaderWashington insists lost legitimacy when he responded with forceto 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 chemicalweapons were already being destroyed," Kerry told a joint newsconference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at anAsia-Pacific summit in Indonesia.

"I think it's also credit to the Assad regime for complyingrapidly, as they are supposed to," he said. "I'm not going tovouch today for what happens months down the road, but it's agood beginning, and we should welcome a good beginning."

Washington blamed Assad's forces for the chemical attackwhile Assad accused rebels of carrying it out to provoke Westernintervention.

The United States and France threatened air strikes inresponse but stepped back from military action after Washingtonand Moscow agreed a framework last month for scrapping Syria'sestimated stockpile of 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents.

Syrian rebels and activists have been dismayed by signs ofwhat they see as U.S. reneging on its support for Assad'sopponents - by deferring any threat of military action and thenreaching a deal with the Syrian president over chemical weapons.

Susan Ahmad, an opposition activist in Damascus, said thechemical weapons agreement was a step back, not forward, inresolving the two-and-a-half year crisis.

"It is all about giving Assad more time to kill more people.And here he is, using Scud (missiles) and recruiting fighters,"she said. "The international community is celebrating thevictory of keeping Assad as president despite the fact that hehas killed hundreds of thousands."


Kerry said he and Lavrov also spoke at length about ways tobring Syria's warring parties together for long-delayed peacetalks which are now scheduled for Geneva next month.

"We re-committed today very specific efforts to move theGeneva process as rapidly as possible," he said, saying bothsides would "lay the groundwork for a round of talks".

They will meet the United Nations special envoy for Syria,Lakhdar Brahimi, to finalise a date for the peace conference, headded. Brahimi said on Sunday it was not certain that the peacetalks would take place in mid-November as planned.

Assad's government and the leader of the politicalopposition in exile have both said they are ready to attendtalks but there is little sign that the differences between themcould be bridged.

The opposition outside Syria, already disowned by themajority of fighters on the ground, insists the talks must focuson removing Assad and installing a transitional government.

Officials say the government will not go to Geneva tosurrender powers to the rebels and Assad has dismissednegotiation with fighters or opponents who support foreignmilitary or political intervention.

The war in Syria has driven 2.1 million refugees to seekshelter in neighbouring countries, according to the UnitedNations which predicts another million will join them by the endof the year and a further 2 million next year.

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