International experts in Damascus have begun an unprecedented U.N.-backed mission to oversee the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons.
Experts from the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) boarded several U.N. vehicles at their Damascus hotel and drove off Wednesday for their first working assignment since arriving in the country a day earlier. There was no immediate word on where they were headed.
The international team includes 19 OPCW experts and 14 U.N. personnel.
Syria has promised to cooperate with the mission, which the U.N. Security Council approved last month. It is the first time the OPCW is faced with the challenge of eliminating a large chemical weapons stockpile under a tight deadline in the midst of a civil war.
The U.N. Security Council set an initial target for the inspectors to verify Syria's declaration of chemical weapons sites and destroy its ability to manufacture chemical agents by November. Syria must then allow all of its chemical warfare stockpiles to be eliminated by the middle of next year.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday he believes the plan is on the right track. Speaking at an investment forum in Moscow, he said if world powers continue working together to support the international mission, they can avoid the need for military action to enforce it.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons under international pressure after an August 21 chemical attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of civilians. The United States and its allies blamed the attack on pro-Assad forces, while the Syrian president and his key ally, Russia, blamed Syria's rebels.
The United States responded to the August 21 incident by threatening military action against the Syrian government.
Russia reacted to the U.S. threat by persuading Mr. Assad to eliminate his previously-undeclared chemical arsenal and reaching a deal with Washington to avoid military action.