BEIRUT (AP) — Syria has destroyed critical equipment for producing chemical weapons and poison gas munitions, the global chemical weapons watchdog said Thursday as fierce clashes raged in the country's north, close to one of the sites where toxic agents are believed to be stored.
The announcement by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons came one day ahead of the Nov. 1 deadline set by The Hague-based organization for Damascus to destroy or "render inoperable" all chemical weapon production facilities and machinery for mixing chemicals into poison gas and filling munitions.
The completion of what is essentially the initial stage of destruction is a significant milestone in an ambitious timeline that aims to destroy all of Damascus' chemical weapons by mid-2014.
Destruction of the equipment means that Syria can no longer produce new chemical weapons.
However, Damascus still has to start destroying existing weapons and stockpiles. The country is believed to have around 1,000 metric tons of chemicals and weapons including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin.
The announcement came as fighting raged Thursday in the town of Safira, which experts say is home to a chemical weapons production facility as well as storage sites, reported the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
President Bashar Assad's troops have been battling rebels, many of them linked to al-Qaida groups, in Safira for weeks. The Observatory said there were casualties on both sides Thursday but had no specifics.
The fighting underscored the dangers the chemical weapons' inspectors face as they race against tight deadlines in their mission to rid Syria of the toxic arsenal in the midst of an ongoing civil war.
A statement from the OPCW, which works closely with the United Nations, said its team was "now satisfied that it has verified — and seen destroyed — all of Syria's declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment." It added that, "no further inspection activities are currently planned."