THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) - Syria has completed destruction of critical equipment for producing chemical weapons and filling munitions with poison gas, the global chemical weapons watchdog said Thursday.
The announcement by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons came one day ahead of the Nov. 1 deadline set by the Hague-based organization for Damascus to destroy or "render inoperable" all chemical weapon production facilities and machinery for mixing chemicals into poison gas and filling munitions.
Destruction of the equipment means that Syria can no longer produce new chemical weapons. However, Damascus still has to start destroying existing weapons and stockpiles. The country is believed to have around 1,000 metric tons of chemicals and weapons including mustard gas and the nerve agent sarin.
In a statement, the OPCW said its team is "now satisfied that it has verified - and seen destroyed - all of Syria's declared critical production and mixing/filling equipment."
It added that, "no further inspection activities are currently planned."
Completion of the initial stage of destruction is a significant milestone in an ambitious timeline that aims to destroy all of Damascus' chemical weapons by mid-2014.
Inspectors said earlier this week they had completed their first round of verification work, visiting 21 of 23 sites declared by Damascus. Inspectors were unable to visit two sites because of security concerns, underscoring the risky nature of a mission to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal in the midst of an ongoing civil war.
However, the OPCW said Thursday that the two sites they could not access were, according to Syria, "abandoned and ... the chemical weapons program items they contained were moved to other declared sites, which were inspected."
Syria has submitted a plan for the total destruction of its chemical weapons that has to be approved next month by the OPCW's executive committee.
In a further sign of progress in the mission, a group of eight OPCW inspectors returned to the organization's headquarters Thursday.
"On behalf of the OPCW, I thank you and all of our colleagues from the Joint OPCW-UN Mission who remain in Syria for your outstanding service," Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said in comments released by the OPCW. "I salute the fortitude and courage you've all demonstrated in fulfilling the most challenging mission ever undertaken by this organization."