BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Syria has destroyed or rendered inoperable all of its declared chemical weapons production and mixing facilities, meeting a major deadline in an ambitious disarmament program, the international chemical weapons watchdog said Thursday.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace prize this month, said its teams had inspected 21 out of 23 chemical weapons sites across the country. The other two were too dangerous to inspect, but the chemical equipment had already been moved to other sites that experts had visited, it said.
Syria "has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable," it said, meeting a deadline to do so no later than November 1.
The next deadline is November 15, by when the OPCW and Syria must agree to a detailed plan of destruction, including how and where to destroy more than 1,000 metric tons of toxic agents and munitions.
Under a Russian-American brokered deal, Damascus agreed to destroy all its chemical weapons after Washington threatened to use force in response to the killing of hundreds of people in a sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21.
It was the world's deadliest chemical weapons incident since Saddam Hussein's forces used poison gas against the Kurdish town of Halabja 25 years ago.
"This was a major milestone in the effort to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program," Ralf Trapp, an independent chemical weapons disarmament specialist, said.
"Most of the sites and facilities declared by Syria to the OPCW have been inspected, their inventories verified, equipment for chemical weapons production disabled and put beyond use, and some of the unfilled weapons have also been disabled."
At one of those locations the OPCW said it was able to verify destruction work remotely, while Syrian forces had abandoned the other two sites.
Trapp said it was "important to ensure that the remaining facilities can be inspected and their equipment and weapons inventoried and prepared for destruction as soon as possible."
The United States and its allies blamed Assad's forces for the attack and several earlier incidents. The Syrian president has rejected the charge, blaming rebel brigades.
Under the disarmament timetable, Syria was due to render unusable all production and chemical weapons filling facilities by November 1 -- a target it has now met. By mid-2014 it must have destroyed its entire stockpile of chemical weapons.
The OPCW mission is being undertaken in the midst of Syria's 2-1/2 year civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people. The unprecedented conditions had raised concerns that the violence would impede the disarmament, but the OPCW says Syrian authorities have been cooperating with the weapons experts, who have been able to visit all but three of the chemical sites.
Syrian authorities said that "the chemical weapons program items removed from these sites were moved to other declared sites,"an OPCW document said. "These sites holding items from abandoned facilities were inspected."
The OPCW has not said which sites it has been unable to visit, but a source briefed on their operations said one of them was in the Aleppo area of northern Syria and another was in Damascus province.
One major chemical weapons site is located close to the town of Safira, south-east of Aleppo. Assad's forces have bombarded the town in recent weeks in an attempt to expel rebel fighters including al Qaeda-linked brigades.