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Weapons experts start Syria mission amid clashes

A convoy of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepares to cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. An advance group of 20 inspectors from a Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog arrived in Syria on Tuesday to begin their complex mission of finding, dismantling and ultimately destroying an estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

A convoy of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons prepares to cross into Syria at the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa, eastern Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. An advance group of 20 inspectors from a Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog arrived in Syria on Tuesday to begin their complex mission of finding, dismantling and ultimately destroying an estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Deadly clashes raged on the edge of Damascus yesterday and rival rebel factions battled each other in northern Syria as international chemical weapons inspectors began to secure the sites where they will work.

The fighting underscored the immense security challenge that the dozens of disarmament experts must negotiate as they work amid the civil war to meet tight deadlines for eliminating President Bashar Assad’s estimated 1,000-ton arsenal of chemical weapons.

The inspectors’ mission – endorsed by a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last week – is to scrap Syria’s capacity to manufacture chemical weapons by Nov. 1 and destroy its entire stockpile by mid-2014.

A convoy of SUVs with U.N. markings departed the central Damascus hotel where the team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is staying as the inspectors headed out for their first full day in the country.

The United Nations and OPCW said in a statement that “joint work with the Syrian authorities has begun on securing the sites where the team will operate, especially in outlying areas.” It added that planning continues for disabling production facilities as do discussions on the size of Syria’s stockpile.

One of the challenges the inspectors face is navigating the war itself.

On the northern edge of Damascus, fierce clashes between Syrian troops and al-Qaida-linked fighters killed at least 19 soldiers and pro-government militiamen in the past three days, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The rebel infighting, which in recent months has risen in intensity, adds a new layer of complication to the 2½-year-old conflict, in which more than 100,000 have been killed.

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