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Syria

Experts begin destroying Syrian chemical weapons

A UN source says that experts have begun destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpile and production facilities. This came after Syrian President Assad again denied carrying out chemical attacks on his own people.

The team of international disarmament inspectors on Sunday began the process of destroying Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons and the machinery used to make it, according to a UN official, who spoke anonymously.

"Today is the first day of destruction, in which heavy vehicles are going to run over and thus destroy missile warheads, aerial chemical bombs and mobile and static mixing and filling units," the official told AFP news agency.

The team from the United Nations and the The Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is in Syria under the terms of a UN resolution, based on a US-Russian agreement, that will see President Bashar al-Assad's regime hand over all its chemical weapons for complete destruction by mid-2014.

The deal was made following a sarin attack on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, on August 21.

The United States has blamed Assad's government for the attack, which killed hundreds of people.

'No negotiations with rebels'

But in an interview with the German newsmagazine Spiegel to be published in print on Monday, Assad has again denied carrying out the attack, blaming it instead on the rebels who are trying to oust him in an increasingly bloody civil conflict.

"The picture you're painting of me as someone who kills his own people is (false)," the magazine quotes him as saying.

In the interview, he said he did not think it was possible to solve the conflict in Syria by negotiating with the rebels.

"In my view, a political opposition does not carry weapons," he is quoted as saying. "If someone drops his weapons and wants to return to daily life, then we can discuss it."

The Spiegel also said Assad would welcome Germany as a possible mediator in the conflict wracking his country.

He would be glad if German envoys were to come to Damascus "to speak with us about the true state of affairs," Assad said.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, however, told Spiegel Online on Sunday that Germany would not take on such a role, as Berlin already supported UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as mediator in the conflict.

Damascus-Tehran axis?

The Syrian leader also admitted that his army was cooperating with Iran-backed Hezbollah militia in clashes in the area bordering Lebanon.

A separate report on Sunday, however, said that the cooperation between Tehran and Damascus could go further.

Spiegel Online reported that German intelligence services believed that Iran has allowed Syria's regime to station fighter jets on its territory to keep them safe from foreign attack. It also quoted a German intelligence paper as sying that Iran had sent elite troops from its Revolutionary Guard to support Assad's forces.

The conflict in Syria, which began as a peaceful pro-democracy movement over two years ago, has evolved into a full-blown civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives, according to UN estimates.

tj/pfd (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)