US lauds moves to destroy Syria chemical arsenal, praises Assad

Reuters

By Lesley Wroughton

NUSA DUA, Indonesia, Oct 7 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary ofState John Kerry lauded the start of destruction of chemicalweapons in Syria as a "good beginning" and said Washington andMoscow had agreed to press the United Nations to set a date fora Syria peace conference in November.

In unusual praise for Damascus, Kerry also gave thegovernment of President Bashar al-Assad credit for quicklycomplying with the U.N. resolution on destroying its chemicalweapons arsenal.

"I think it is extremely significant that yesterday, Sunday,within a week of the resolution being passed, some chemicalweapons were already being destroyed," Kerry said at a jointnews conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov atan Asia-Pacific summit on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.

"I think it's also credit to the Assad regime for complyingrapidly, as they are supposed to."

But he added: "Now, we hope that will continue. I'm notgoing to vouch today for what happens months down the road, butit's a good beginning, and we should welcome a good beginning."

A team of international experts from the Organization forthe Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague and U.N.personnel began destroying Syria's chemical gas arsenal onSunday.

Their work follows an agreement hammered out betweenWashington and Moscow after a deadly Aug 21 chemical weaponsattack in the suburbs of Damascus, which prompted U.S. threatsof air strikes against the Syrian government. The elimination ofthe chemical weapons is expected to continue until at leastmid-2014.

More than 100,000 people have died in Syria's conflict,which began in early 2011 with peaceful demonstrations seekingmore democracy but deteriorated into a sectarian civil war.

On Bali, Kerry and Lavrov first met with aides and thenone-on-one, discussing ways to end Syria's civil war and talkson Oct. 15-16 between world powers and Iran on ending a disputeover its nuclear weapons program.

Kerry characterized his meeting with Lavrov as "one of themost productive we have had", saying they spoke at length aboutways to bring Syria's warring parties together in Geneva, knownas the Geneva 2 talks.

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

They will meet with 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 SAYS REBELS SHOULD DISARM

Assad told a German magazine he would not negotiate withrebels until they laid down their arms, and said his mostpowerful ally Russia supported his government more than ever.He said he did not believe it was possible to solve the conflictthrough negotiations with the rebels.

"In my view, a political opposition does not carry weapons.If someone drops his weapons and wants to return to daily life,then we can discuss it," he was quoted as saying by Der Spiegel.

Kerry was however hopeful for talks in November.

"It is our mutual hope that that can happen in November andwe are both intent and determined in consultations with ourfriends in these efforts to try to make certain this can happenin November," he said, adding: "A final date and terms ofparticipation will have to be determined by the United Nations."

Lavrov, speaking through an interpreter, said Moscow would"do everything" it could to ensure that Assad abides by the U.N.resolution, which demands the eradication of Syria's chemicalweapons and endorses a plan for a political transition in Syria.

But Lavrov said Syria's opposition groups could not setpre-conditions for the talks in Geneva and should come preparedto "speak with one voice".

Kerry also dismissed a suggestion that the United States andIran were becoming closer.

Washington has insisted that actions, not words, by Iranwill convince it that Tehran is serious about resolvingdifferences.

Kerry said the U.S. and its allies were waiting for plansfrom Iran that show its nuclear program was being used forpeaceful purposes, and not to develop nuclear weapons.

"The United States and our allies are absolutely prepared tomove in appropriate ways to meet their actions, so we still haveto wait and see where that comes out," Kerry added.

But he added: "The talk of these first days and theexchanges of a couple of gains and phone call do not indicatecloseness," said Kerry. "They indicate an opportunity, theyindicate an opening of a door to some discussion," he added.

Six world powers - the United States, Britain, France,Russia, China and Germany - are to meet with Iran in Geneva nextweek.

Kerry said he and Lavrov also discussed talks between Moscowand Washington on cooperation in missile defence.

"I think we are in a place now where the next step of thatdiscussion can take place regardless of what happens withrespect to Iran," Kerry said. "We would like to reach anunderstanding with Russia and I think Russia would like to reachan understanding with us."

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