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Syria Inspectors 'Face Unprecedented Danger'
UN inspectors face a year-long mission of unprecedented danger in trying to destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned.
And as Mr Ban set out a blueprint for the most dangerous disarmament operation ever staged, rebels launched a major offensive.
The assault in northwest Syria highlighted the looming threats to inspectors from the joint United Nations and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission.
In a letter to the Security Council, Mr Ban said the experts "will seek to conduct an operation the likes of which, quite simply, have never been tried before".
It normally takes years to complete the destruction of a country's chemical weapons arsenal.
Mr Ban said: "The joint mission will be expected to support, monitor and verify the destruction of a complex chemical weapons programme involving multiple sites spread over a country engulfed in violent conflict.
"The timelines associated with this destruction phase would be ambitious under the most peaceful and benign of circumstances."
The 11-page letter was Mr Ban's required response to the resolution adopted unanimously by the Security Council on September 27, ordering Syria's chemical weapons stockpile be secured and destroyed.
After months of diplomatic sparring, Russia and the United States agreed to work together to disarm Syria after a toxic gas attack near Damascus on August 21 in which hundreds died.
Mr Ban said an advance team of 35 personnel from the OPCW and UN have already arrived in Damascus.
On Sunday, Syrians - under the supervision of the OPCW and supported by the UN - began to destroy the weapons.
They used "cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable a range of materials, including missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment," Mr Ban said.
"I welcome this historic step, and urge all parties to do their part to ensure that this encouraging progress is maintained and indeed accelerated," he said.
Mr Ban highlighted the threat to the experts and Syrian civilians from the sarin, mustard gas and other chemical weapons which will have to be moved amid ongoing fighting across the country.
The experts will have to work in "dangerous and volatile" conditions, particularly in urban areas such as Damascus, Homs and Aleppo, the UN leader said.
"Heavy artillery, air strikes, mortar barrages and the indiscriminate shelling of civilians areas are commonplace, and battle lines shift quickly," he added.
Two mortars landed near the Damascus hotel the team is using just before they arrived last week.
Mr Ban added that roadside bombs "have detonated in close proximity" to the inspectors.
"My two highest priorities are the elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons programme and the safety and security of joint mission personnel who have volunteered to perform this vital but dangerous task," he said.
Under a timetable drawn up by Russia and the US, the experts have until the end of June to supervise the transport and destruction of the chemicals.
The Syrian government remains responsible for the actual destruction of the weapons, however.
Western countries blame President Bashar al Assad's forces for the August 21 chemical attack near Damascus which the United States says left more than 1,400 dead. The Syrian government and Russia accuse the opposition of having carried out the attack.