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US, Russia Closer to Agreement on Syrian Chemical Weapons

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet Saturday for a third day in Switzerland after "constructive" talks on ending Syria's chemical weapons program.

The two diplomats say an agreement to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control could help revive efforts toward a political transition to end the civil war.

A senior Obama administration official says U.S. and Russian negotiators are coming closer to an agreement on the scope of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles. That is central to identifying and containing those munitions, since Russian estimates are lower than the roughly 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons that the United States believes are in Syria.

Kerry said Friday's talks on containing and destroying Syrian chemical weapons included some of the "homework" that he and Foreign Minister Lavrov need to do to get Syria's warring factions to a conference on a transitional government.

"We've both agreed to do that homework and meet again in New York around the time of the U.N. General Assembly, around the 28th [of September], in order to see if it is possible then to find a date for that conference much of which will obviously depend on the capacity to have success here in the next day, hours, days on the subject of the chemical weapons," Kerry said.

Lavrov said progress on Syrian chemical weapons could help open the way for a political transition.

"The Syrian parties must reach mutual consent on the transitional governing organ which would command full executive authority. And the communique also says that all groups of Syrian society must be represented," he said.

Kerry will travel to Israel Sunday for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then to Paris for talks Monday with the foreign ministers of France, Britain and Saudi Arabia.

U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday he is hopeful that the negotiations Kerry is having will "bear fruit." Speaking in Washington after meeting with Kuwait's leader, Mr. Obama said any agreement to destroy Syria's chemical weapons must be "verifiable and enforceable."

A new U.S. poll shows that Americans are evenly divided as to weather they think the plan to put chemical weapons under international control will be successful. The Gallup poll shows that 45% of Americans are at least somewhat optimistic about the plan while 44% say they are pessimistic about it.

Talks with UN envoy

Kerry and Lavrov spoke to reporters Friday after meeting with the U.N. special representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, who is trying to organize a conference known as Geneva Two.

"It is extremely important in itself and for itself, but it is also extremely important for us working with you on trying to bring together the Geneva Two conference successfully," Brahimi said.

That conference has been delayed repeatedly by confusion within the Syrian opposition and by disagreement over what other nations might attend. Russia believes Iran should take part in those talks. Washington opposes Tehran's participation because its forces are advising and supplying Syrian troops.

It is not clear how the talks on securing Syria's chemical weapons might resolve those outstanding differences over a Geneva Two conference, but Kerry said he is hopeful the initiative "could pay off and bring peace and stability to a war-torn part of the world."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has formally applied to join an international convention banning the use of chemical weapons but says that can not be "brought to the final stage" while his country is under the threat of a U.S. missile strike.

U.S. President Barack Obama says he retains the right to use force to degrade Syria's ability to use chemical weapons following an August attack outside Damascus that Washington blames on Assad forces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says there is "every reason" to believe that opposition fighters were responsible for that chemical weapon attack in a bid to provoke outside military action.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, he warned against a U.S. military strike on Syria saying that "would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism."

UN report due

In New York, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said he expects a report from a team investigating the August 21st attack will be an "overwhelming report" that shows chemical weapons were used. U.N. officials told VOA the report is expected on Monday.

It reportedly will focus on analysis of biomedical and environmental samples they collected from the area of the attack. The team also took statements from medical personnel and survivors.

The team's mandate is to say only whether chemical agents were used, not who used them.

A spokesman for Ban, Farhan Haq, said although the report is not complete, the secretary-general has been in touch with the team's experts.

Ban also expressed continued concern over the crisis in Syria, which has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced at least 6 million.

Speaking about calls for Assad to leave power, he said it is for the people of Syria to decide.

“I think that's their choice," Ban said. "What happened is that he has committed many crimes against humanity. Therefore, I'm sure that there will be, surely, the process of accountability when everything is over.”

Executions blamed on Syrian forces

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch announced Friday that Syrian government-linked forces executed at least 248 people, including women and children, following clashes with opposition fighters in two towns earlier this year.

The killings in the coastal towns of al-Bayda and Baniyas were among the "deadliest instances of mass summary executions" during Syria's two and a half year-long civil war, the group said in a report.

The executions followed clashes between government and rebel forces on May 2-3, according to the report. After opposition fighters retreated, the report said Assad fighters entered homes, rounded up men from each neighborhood, and shot them execution style.

Human Rights Watch documented at least 23 women and 14 children, including infants, it says were killed by government forces in al-Bayda. It said in both towns, government or pro-government forces executed, or tried to execute, entire families.

Syria's government has admitted to killing "terrorists," its name for rebels, and possibly committing what it called "mistakes" during the military operation in the two towns. But Human Rights Watch says the "overwhelming majority" were executed after the clashes had ended.

Joe Stork, Human Rights Watch's acting Middle East director, said the executions show that the world "shouldn't forget that Syrian government forces have used conventional means to slaughter civilians."

Human Rights Watch said the U.N. Security Council should "ensure accountability for these crimes by referring the situation to the International Criminal Court."

William Gallo contributed to this report from Washington and Margaret Besheer from the United Nations,

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