THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The international chemical weapons watchdog was meeting Friday to endorse a plan to destroy Syria's deadly poison gas and nerve agent arsenal, most likely somewhere outside the Mideast country.
Approval by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons of a destruction plan is a crucial step in the international community's efforts to eliminate President Bashar Assad's stockpile that is believed to include mustard gas and sarin.
The risky disarmament operation in the midst of a raging civil war started more than a month ago with inspections and the smashing of machinery used to mix chemicals and fill empty munitions, thereby ending the regime's capability to make new weapons.
Syria has proposed moving the stockpile out of the country for destruction and the OPCW said that was the "most viable" option.
The mission stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus in which the United Nations determined the nerve agent sarin was used. Hundreds of people were killed. The U.S. and Western allies accuse Syria's government of being responsible, while Damascus blames the rebels.
The Obama administration threatened to launch punitive missile strikes against Syria, prompting frantic diplomatic efforts to forestall an attack. Those efforts concluded with September's unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons, a process that began last month.
Since then, international inspectors have visited 22 of 23 chemical weapons sites declared by Syria and confirmed Damascus met a Nov. 1 deadline to destroy or "render inoperable" all chemical weapon production facilities.
Syria also submitted a confidential plan for the destruction of its stockpile, which has to be endorsed by the OPCW's Executive Council on Friday.
In a clear indication that the plan will involve transferring the chemical weapons out of Syria, Norway's Foreign Minister said Thursday his country would send a civilian cargo ship and a Navy frigate to Syria to pick up the stockpiles and carry them elsewhere for destruction.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Borge Brende described destroying Assad's arsenal as a Norwegian obligation. Fifty servicemen usually accompany a Norwegian frigate and Brende acknowledged the operation is "not risk-free."
Exactly where the weapons will be taken remains unclear, but Albania, which successfully destroyed its own poison gas arsenal, is being tipped as a candidate, triggering protests there.
Syria's conflict — now in its third year — has killed more than 120,000 people, according to activists, and displaced millions. It started as an uprising against Assad's rule but later turned into an armed conflict and a vicious civil war. The fighting has pitted Assad's government forces against a disunited array of rebel factions, including al-Qaida-linked extremists.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said Friday that a government airstrike the previous night in northern Syria killed a senior rebel figure and wounded two commanders and the spokesman of the Tawhid Brigade, the main rebel outfit in Aleppo province.
According to the Observatory, the chief commander of the brigade, Abdul-Qadir Saleh, was wounded while the brigade's financial officer, Abu Tayeb, was killed. The spokesman, Saleh Anadan, said later in a video released from his hospital bed, that the brigade's post took a direct hit.
Government troops have advanced in Aleppo over the past weeks, capturing strategic parts of the province, including the town of Safira, a development that secured a supply flow to government-held areas in the north.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.