By Anthony Deutsch
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Syrian officials have been constructive and cooperative in the early stages of the program to destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, the head of the global chemical weapons watchdog said on Wednesday.
Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said that experts aimed to visit 20 sites in the coming days and weeks, and could eliminate Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014 if they won support from all sides in its civil war.
"The cooperation has been quite constructive and I would say the Syrian authorities have been cooperative," Uzumcu told a news conference in The Hague, where the OPCW is based.
"If we can ensure cooperation by all parties, and if some temporary ceasefires could be established in order to permit our experts to work in a permissive environment, I think the targets could be reached."
Syria submitted a declaration of its chemical weapons arsenal to the OPCW last month but the details have not been disclosed. Chemical weapons experts believe Syria has roughly 1,000 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve gas, some of it stored as bulk raw chemicals and some of it already loaded onto missiles, warheads or rockets.
Under a Russian-U.S. deal struck last month, Syria must render useless all production facilities and weapons-filling equipment by November, a process begun over the past week. Its entire chemical arms program must be eliminated by mid-2014.
Most of the chemical agents are believed to be stored in territory under the control of forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad, who has pledged to ensure the safety of dozens of OPCW experts conducting verification activities in a war zone.
The team in Syria, now consisting of 27 field experts, will enter only those areas where inspectors will be safe, said Malik Ellahi, political adviser to director general Uzumcu. "The OPCW will only go and conduct its mission if it is assured security."
For the field team's access to areas where hostilities are continuing, the Syrian government and the United Nations will need to negotiate ceasefires with rebel forces.
"We are confident of the ability of our colleagues in the U.N. to work with all groups within Syria to create those conditions," Malik said. "If we don't get clearance, we won't move."
An OPCW official speaking on condition of anonymity said the chemical sites believed to be now in rebel-held or contested territory were mostly emptied before fighting started there, but they would still need to be inspected at some point to ensure they were no longer being used.
Roughly 100 experts from the chemical weapons regulator will be required to carry out the labor-intensive procedure of either incinerating or chemically neutralizing toxic agents used for warfare.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)