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Russia, US resume high-stakes Syria talks

Russia, US resume high-stakes Syria talks

Russia and the US were Friday set to huddle for a second day of key talks on how to secure Syria’s chemical weapons amid reports Damascus was scattering the stockpile to frustrate efforts to track the deadly arsenal.

Syria’s key ally Russia has proposed that Damascus give up its chemical weapons in a bid to avoid threatened military strikes by the US, and on Thursday Washington and Moscow’s top diplomats began poring over the logistics of the plan at a Geneva hotel.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad confirmed for the first time on Thursday that Syria planned to relinquish its chemical arms, but demanded that the US first drop its threat of military action against his regime.

“When we see that the United States truly desires stability in our region and stops threatening and seeking to invade, as well as stops arms supplies to terrorists, then we can believe that we can follow through with the necessary processes,” Assad told Russian television.

But Washington, which has threatened military strikes over an alleged chemical attack by Assad forces on a Damascus suburb, warned the regime that words alone were not enough.

“The words of the Syrian regime in our judgement are simply not enough,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Any deal to bring Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile under international control “has to be credible. It has to be timely and implemented in a timely fashion,” he said.

Hours before Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov were to resume the high-stakes talks, reports emerged that a secret Syrian military unit has been scattering its cache of the deadly weapons around the country.

The unit had been given responsibility to shift the arsenal of poison gases and munitions around the country, the Wall Street Journal reported citing US and Middle Eastern officials.

The report will fuel the scepticism of critics who have questioned whether the Russian proposal is viable or whether Syria is sincere about wanting to cede control of the weapons.

The Russian proposal calls for a four-step process for the weapons handover, according to the Kommersant daily.

The plan calls for Damascus to join the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), declare the locations of its chemical arms, allow OPCW inspectors access and finally arrange for destruction of the arsenal.

Syria’s opposition has denounced the proposal, warning it will only lead to more deaths in a conflict that has already claimed more than 110,000 lives since March 2011.

In a concrete move towards disarmament, Syria on Thursday filed documents at the United Nations seeking to join the international convention banning chemical weapons.

Damascus said it now considers itself a full member of the convention. While UN leader Ban Ki-moon welcomed the application, the United Nations would not immediately confirm it had been accepted.

Washington alleges that some 1,400 people died in a chemical attack on August 21 and was rallying support for a military response when the Russian proposal emerged.

UN inspectors will point the finger of blame at the Assad regime for the chemical weapons strike, the London Times reported Friday.

The inspectors’ report, due to be published on Monday, will include a wealth of evidence that a chemical nerve agent was used in the attack, according to the paper’s sources.

The United States and France, Washington’s main backer of military strikes on Syria, have warned they will not allow the chemical weapons plan to become a delaying tactic in Syria’s brutal war.

Pending the talks in Geneva, US President Barack Obama has put on hold plans for limited military strikes against the Syrian regime to disable its chemical weapons capability, but US officials have repeatedly stressed that the option still remains on the table.

Russia, which has blocked any attempt to sanction Syria through the United Nations, vigorously opposes military strikes.

Obama, who faced an uphill battle getting congressional approval for strikes on Syria, had said that the threat of military action had forced Damascus to budge and agree to discuss the Russian proposal.

But Assad on Thursday denied the threat of US strikes played a role in his decision to give up the chemical weapons stocks.

“Syria is handing over chemical weapons under international control because of Russia,” Assad said. “US threats have not affected the decision.”

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