DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — An advance group of weapons inspectors who will oversee Syria's destruction of its chemical arms arrived in Beirut Monday en route to Damascus, Lebanese airport and security officials said.
The inspectors from The Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are to help Syria meet a Nov. 1 deadline to scrap its ability to manufacture such arms, and are scheduled to head into Syria on Tuesday. The destruction of Syria's existing stockpiles is to be completed by mid-2014.
Syria's foreign minister, meanwhile, said the main Western-backed opposition group should not take part in a future peace conference because it had overwhelmingly supported a U.S. strike against Damascus over an attack last month in which chemical weapons were used.
A Russian initiative eventually averted a U.S. strike and led to the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution to have Syria dismantle its chemical weapons program. The resolution, passed after two weeks of white-knuckle negotiations, marked a major breakthrough in diplomatic efforts since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
Lebanese airport and security officials said 20 inspectors from the OPCW landed in Beirut with a private jet Monday afternoon, but did not speak to journalists. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The U.N. resolution passed unanimously Friday aims to strip President Bashar Assad's regime of its estimated 1,000-ton chemical arsenal by mid-2014. It also calls for consequences if Syria fails to comply, though the Security Council would have to pass another resolution to impose any penalties.
The U.N. resolution also endorsed the roadmap for a political transition in Syria adopted by key nations in June 2012, and called for an international conference to be convened "as soon as possible" to implement it.
U.S. and Russian efforts are also focusing on holding that conference, perhaps as soon as November in Geneva.
But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem's comments put a damper on those efforts. He said senior Damascus government officials would not sit down to talk with the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group in exile that supported the possibility of a U.S. strike.
Al-Moallem told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV late Sunday that the group "is not popular in Syria and lost a lot among Syrians when it called on the U.S. to attack Syria militarily, meaning that it called for attacking the Syrian people."
Assad has previously said the government won't talk to armed rebels and militants — but al-Moallem's remarks seem to have expanded the government's list of the undesirable talking partners.
Al-Moallem, the foreign minister, said there are other opposition groups in Syria that should be represented in future peace talks, "but not the coalition."
The comments are certain to further complicate efforts to hold the talks.
The opposition coalition's head, Ahmad al-Jarba, expressed readiness last week to attend talks in Geneva aimed at establishing a transitional government with full executive powers.
But other coalition members said they will only participate if they have guarantees prior to the talks that Assad would step down.
On Monday, another U.N. team of inspectors charged with investigating alleged chemical attack sites concluded its almost week-long mission in Syria and headed to Lebanon. The U.N. said Friday the team was to investigate a total of seven locations.
The team initially visited Syria last month to investigate three alleged chemical attacks earlier this year. But just days into the visit, the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta was hit by a chemical weapons attack, and the inspectors turned their attention to that case. The inquiry determined that the nerve agent sarin was used in the Aug. 21 attack, but it did not assess who was behind it.
AP writer Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut.