DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - Inspectors charged with the enormous task of overseeing the destruction of Syria's deadly chemical weapons stockpiles kicked off their mission Monday, racing to meet tight deadlines against the backdrop of civil war.
The Syrian regime lashed out at the rebels, claiming government forces are fighting mostly al-Qaida-linked militants and refusing to talk with the main Western-backed opposition group - a blow to U.S.-Russian efforts to hold a peace conference by November.
New splits within the opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, also emerged on the conditions for attending the planned conference in Geneva. After meetings with U.S. officials in New York last week, the group's leader expressed readiness to attend talks aimed at establishing a transitional government with full executive powers, leaving open the question of whether President Bashar Assad could stay on.
But other coalition members expressed astonishment, saying they would participate only if they have prior guarantees that Assad would step down.
"Geneva should be the road toward salvation and not the road to rescue Assad and his gang," said Mohammad Sarmini, a Turkey-based coalition member.
All previous efforts at bringing the warring sides together for talks have failed, and it was unclear why the regime would come to the table now that it has the upper hand in the war and the threat of an imminent U.S. military strike has been lifted.
The Russian initiative that averted the strike led to the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution to have Syria dismantle its estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal by mid-2014. The resolution, passed after two weeks of negotiations, marked a breakthrough in diplomatic efforts since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
On Monday, 20 inspectors from the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons landed in Beirut on a private jet on their way to Syria.
The group is to travel to Damascus on Tuesday to begin its ambitious task - a complex and potentially explosive mission fraught with security challenges. They are expected to meet with Syrian Foreign Ministry officials on arrival.
Inspectors at The Hague said Sunday the inspectors' priority is to achieve the first milestone of helping the country scrap its ability to manufacture chemical weapons by a Nov. 1 deadline, using every means possible.
That may include smashing mixing equipment with sledgehammers, blowing up delivery missiles, driving tanks over empty shells or filling them with concrete, and running machines without lubricant so they seize up and become inoperable.
Some of the inspectors will be double-checking Syria's initial disclosure of what weapons and chemical precursors it has and where they are located. Others will begin planning the logistics for visits to every location where chemicals or weapons are stored.
Within a week a second group of inspectors will arrive - fewer than 100 combined - and form teams that will fan out to individual sites. Their routes are secret - both for their safety and because Syria has the right not to reveal its military secrets, including base locations.