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Inspectors verify 22 of Syria's 23 chemical sites

BEIRUT (AP) — International experts have verified all but one of Syria's 23 declared chemical weapons sites after receiving video and photographic evidence that shows a facility near the contested northern city of Aleppo has been dismantled and abandoned, the inspectors said Thursday.

The joint mission by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations, which is overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal, visited 21 of the sites last month but were unable to visit two — one of them in Aleppo province — because of security concerns related to fighting in the area.

The Syrian government provided the joint mission with photographs and footage of the facility near Aleppo that confirmed the site has been dismantled and abandoned, the OPCW-U.N. mission said in a statement Thursday. It added that the building bore signs of "extensive battle damage." It was not clear when the damage occurred.

The images were shot with a tamperproof camera that inspectors had fitted with a GPS system so that the location of the camera could be tracked, the statement said. The photos and video have been authenticated by international inspectors.

The OPCW-U.N. mission has not disclosed the location of the last remaining site the inspectors need to verify.

Still, Thursday's statement marked a step forward for the inspectors, who are racing to meet a mid-2014 deadline to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program.

Last week, the inspectors said President Bashar Assad's government had met the Nov. 1 deadline to destroy or "render inoperable" all chemical weapon production facilities and machinery for mixing chemicals into poison gas and filling munitions, even though two sites had not been inspected because of fighting in the country's civil war.

The organization said at the time that Syria had declared the two inaccessible sites had already been abandoned and all equipment moved to other sites that had been inspected.

Syria is believed to possess around 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and sarin. Damascus already had given preliminary details to the OPCW when it declared it was joining the organization in September.

The agreement for Syria to relinquish its chemical arsenal warded off possible U.S. military strikes in the aftermath of a deadly Aug. 21 chemical weapon attack on rebel-held Damascus suburbs. Washington and its allies accuse the Syrian government of being responsible for the attack, while Damascus blames rebels.

On Wednesday, the main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, issued a statement calling on the U.N. Security Council "ensure that the Syrian regime is held to account (over the attack) and that justice for all Syrians is served, in accordance with international law."

The OPCW inspectors working in Syria face the tightest deadline in the organization's history. Their task is made all the more challenging because it has to be completed amid a raging civil war.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said Thursday that government forces backed by fighters from two Shiite militias — Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iraq's Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade — seized control of the suburb of Sabina south of Damascus.

The SANA state news agency also reported the government's capture of Sabina, and said the areas had been used as a base to smuggle weapons and ammunition to rebel-held suburbs east of Damascus.

The Syrian government keeps a tight grip on central Damascus, and has been trying for months to sweep anti-Assad fighters from a host of towns and districts surrounding the capital.

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Corder reporter from The Hague, Netherlands. Associated Press writer Yasmine Saker contributed to this report from Beirut.

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