DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad said his government will allow international experts access to its chemical weapons sites, but cautioned in an interview broadcast Monday that rebels might block them from reaching some of the locations.
In an interview with Chinese state TV, Assad said Damascus is dedicated to implementing a Russia-U.S. agreement to surrender its chemical weapons to international control. According to the accord that was brokered last week in Geneva, inspectors are to be on the ground in Syria by November.
The government, he said, won't have "any problem" taking experts to sites where the weapons are kept but some of the places might be difficult to reach because of ongoing fighting between the Syrian army and rebels battling the regime, whom he called "gunmen."
"I'm referring to places where gunmen exist. Those gunmen might want to stop the experts' arrival," Assad told China's CCTV.
Damascus met a first deadline under a U.S.-Russia agreement aimed at swiftly ridding Syria of its chemical arsenal, submitting last week what was supposedly the full list of its chemical weapons and production facilities to the U.N. agency so they can be secured and destroyed.
While on the ground in Syria, the experts are to complete their initial assessment and all mixing and filling equipment for chemical weapons is to be destroyed. All components of the chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by mid-2014.
In the interview with the Chinese TV filmed Sunday in Damascus, Assad said Syria has already handed over a list of chemical weapons to an international agency. He said his government will ensure that experts arrive "at the places where we produce and store our chemical weapons."
"I don't think we have any problems with that," he said, adding that some experts may find it "difficult to reach those places due to the local security situation."
Technical experts at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Saturday they were reviewing disclosures from Syria about its chemical weapons program. No details have been released of what is in the Syrian declarations.
U.S. officials said last week that Washington and Moscow agreed that Syria had roughly 1,000 metric tons (1,100 tons) of chemical weapons agents and precursors, including blister agents, such as sulfur and mustard gas and nerve agents like sarin.
The revelations of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal became public after an August attack near Damascus that the U.S. and its Western allies say has contained a nerve agent and killed 1,400 people. Activists groups say the death toll of the Aug. 21 attack in eastern Ghouta that brought Washington to the brink of military intervention in Syria was significantly lower.
In the aftermath of the attack, a U.N. report concluded that sarin had been used.
Meanwhile, an al-Qaida group in Syria said one of its top commanders was killed in an ambush by rival, Western-backed rebels in a northern Syria province.
It was the latest incident in rising infighting among rebel groups in the country's north, where the opposition controls large parts of territory captured from Assad's troops.
The group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant said its commander in Idlib province, Abu Abdullah al-Libi, was ambushed by members of the Free Syrian Army near a border crossing with Turkey.
The attackers sprayed the car with bullets on Sunday, killing al-Libi, which is not a real name but a nom de guerre, according to the group's statement, published on a militant website Sunday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that monitors the conflict, confirmed al-Libi's death, saying he was killed along with 12 other al-Qaida fighters near the village of Hazanu, 10 kilometers (six miles) away from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.
Syria's civil war has left more than 100,000 dead since the conflict erupted in March 2011 and displaced millions of people.
Surk reported from Beirut.