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Assad: Syria to offer data on chemical weapons

Friday - 9/13/2013, 3:06am  ET

In this Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a journalist records a Syrian government solider as he aims his weapon, during clashes with Free Syrian Army fighters in Maaloula village, northeast of the capital Damascus, Syria. Heavy fighting between Syrian government troops and rebels flared again on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013 in the ancient, predominantly Christian village of Maaloula. Troops are trying to flush out rebel units, including two that are linked to al-Qaida, from the hilltop enclave which they broke into last week. (AP Photo/SANA)

BASSEM MROUE
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian President Bashar Assad publicly agreed Thursday to a Russian plan to secure and destroy his chemical weapons, but said the proposal would work only if the U.S. halts threats of military action.

Assad also said his government will start submitting data on its chemical weapons stockpile a month after signing the convention banning such weapons.

Syria's U.N. ambassador Bashar Ja'afari told reporters Thursday that he presented Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with "the instrument of accession" to the Chemical Weapons Convention making his country a full member of the treaty banning the use of chemical weapons.

U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said that while secretary-general welcomes the development, Syria will only become a member 30 days after its instrument of accession is deposited and that the documentation is still being studied.

American officials, meeting with their Russian counterparts in Geneva, insisted on a speedier Syrian accounting of their stockpiles.

Assad's remarks to Russia's state Rossiya 24 news channel were his first since the Russian plan was announced Monday as a way to avert a potential U.S. military strike in response to the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds near Damascus.

He said that Syria is relinquishing control over its chemical weapons because of Russia.

"We agreed to put Syria's chemical weapons under international supervision in response to Russia's request and not because of American threats," Assad said.

"In my view, the agreement will begin to take effect a month after its signing, and Syria will begin turning over to international organizations data about its chemical weapons," Assad added. He said this is "standard procedure" and that Syria will stick to it.

"There is nothing standard about this process," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry retorted in Geneva, because Assad has used his chemical weapons. "The words of the Syrian regime in our judgment are simply not enough."

Syria had long rejected joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, which requires all parties to the treaty to declare and destroy whatever chemical weapons they may possess.

Assad said the Russian deal was a two-sided process. "We are counting, first of all, on the United States stop conducting the policy of threats regarding Syria," he said.

Syria's Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil also suggested on Thursday that the Russian proposal will succeed only if the United States and its allies pledge not to attack Syria in the future.

"We want a pledge that neither it (the U.S.) nor anyone else will launch an aggression against Syria," Jamil told The Associated Press in Damascus.

But Kerry cautioned that a U.S. military strike could occur if Assad doesn't agree to dismantle his chemical arsenal properly. "There ought to be consequences if it doesn't take place," he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, however, said the dismantling "will make unnecessary any strike against the Syrian Arab Republic."

Syria's top rebel commander, meanwhile, slammed the Russian proposal, calling for Assad to be put on trial for allegedly ordering the Aug. 21 attack. Many rebels had held out hopes that U.S.-led punitive strikes on Assad's forces would help tip the scales in their favor in Syria's civil war, which has claimed over 100,000 lives so far.

Gen. Salim Idris' statement was broadcast on pan-Arab satellite channels hours before talks in Geneva between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

"We call upon the international community, not only to withdraw the chemical weapons that were the tool of the crime, but to hold accountable those who committed the crime in front of the International Criminal Court," Idris said.

He added that the Free Syrian Army "categorically rejects the Russian initiative" as falling short of the expectations of rebel fighters.

The U.S. accuses Assad's government of being behind the attack in the suburb of Ghouta. The U.S. says the attack killed 1,429 people; other estimates of the deaths are lower.

Assad has denied responsibility and accuses U.S. officials of spreading lies without providing evidence.

In the interview Thursday, he charged that the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack was a "U.S.-organized provocation."

"The threats (of a military strike) are based on a provocation. It was arranged with the use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta," he said.

In Geneva, Kerry and a team of U.S. experts will have at least two days of meetings with their Russian counterparts. The Americans hope to emerge with an outline of how some 1,000 tons of chemical weapons stocks and precursor materials as well as potential delivery systems can be safely inventoried and isolated under international control in an active war zone and then destroyed.

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