DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — President Bashar Assad pledged in an interview broadcast Monday to honor an agreement to surrender Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, but he said that rebels might try to block international arms inspectors from doing their work.
As battles continued across Syria, new Associated Press video of an attack Sunday night showed the regime’s helicopters dropping barrel bombs on opposition-held areas, creating chaotic scenes of destruction.
In a sign of worsening infighting among the rebels, a top al-Qaida commander in Syria was killed in an ambush by rival, Western-backed group — an assassination sure to raise tensions among factions seeking to topple the regime.
Assad’s comments came as world leaders gathered in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly, where the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war was high on the agenda.
The Syrian leader told Chinese state TV that Damascus is dedicated to implementing the agreement reached between Russia and the U.S. to surrender its chemical weapons to international control. Syria’s stockpile, he said, is “in safe areas and locations and under the full control of the Syrian Arab Army.”
Assad cautioned, however, that the rebels might block inspectors from reaching some of the locations, in order to frame the government.
“I’m referring to places where gunmen exist. Those gunmen might want to stop the experts’ arrival,” Assad told CCTV in the interview, which was shot Sunday in Damascus and broadcast Monday.
Under the agreement brokered Sept. 14 in Geneva, inspectors are to be in Syria by November and all components of the chemical weapons program are to be removed from the country or destroyed by the middle of next year.
The revelations of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal became public after an Aug. 21 attack near Damascus that a U.N. report found included the use of the nerve agent sarin. Hundreds of people died in the attack that brought Washington to the brink of military intervention before the accord was struck between the U.S. and Russia.
The U.N. inspectors face enormous challenges, including maneuvering between rebel- and government-controlled territory. Last month, snipers opened fire on a U.N. convoy carrying a team on its way to investigate the Aug. 21 incident.
Opposition fighters have insisted they will also cooperate with any inspectors or experts who come to Syria.
Ralf Trapp, a former chemical arms inspector who is now a disarmament consultant, said Assad was legally obligated to let in inspectors under the chemical weapons treaty. But, he cautioned, “they can use the security situation as an excuse. They can delay things.”
Damascus met a first deadline under the Geneva agreement, submitting last week what was supposedly the full list of its chemical weapons and production facilities to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons so they can be secured and destroyed.
Also Monday, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah categorically denied rebel claims that his group had received chemical weapons from Syria.
The U.S.-Russian deal has dealt a blow to the rebels, who had hoped a U.S.-led military strike would turn the war in their favor. Opposition leaders have warned the regime will continue to wield conventional weapons in the civil war, which has killed more than 100,000 people since the uprising began in March 2011.
Fierce fighting between regime forces and rebels Monday included an airstrike that killed at least six people from the same family in central Hama province.
Exclusive AP video showed a helicopter dropping explosives Sunday evening on the village of Habit, followed by pandemonium as civilians and fighters with flashlights searched frantically for survivors in the rubble.
Villagers used a pickax and car jacks to try to rescue a man and his son buried under slabs of concrete. The father’s face and hands could be seen protruding from the rubble. He did not survive, but his son was saved.
Another AP video showed billowing smoke and destruction after helicopters and warplanes bombed rebel positions in the mostly abandoned village of Kafer Zita, also in the Hama region. Several men appeared to be groggy from the blasts and covered in dust. Hospital officials said they struggled to treat the injured, with scarce medication.
Regime forces are fighting Sunni rebels in the Hama area to keep them from advancing on villages inhabited by Alawites, members of Assad’s minority sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
In the latest inter-rebel fighting, the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida offshoot, said its commander in Idlib province, Abu Abdullah al-Libi, was killed in an ambush by members of the Free Syrian Army who opened fire on his car near a border crossing with Turkey on Sunday. The statement was posted on a militant website.
Al-Libi, a Libyan national, is a high-profile militant who fought in Iraq, Libya and most recently in Syria.
Charles Lister, an analyst with IHS Jane’s, said the killing underlines the increasingly hostile environment for the ISIL. The group has sought to expand its influence across opposition-held territory in the north and has increasingly clashed with long-existing rebel units affiliated with the FSA.
The killing “will undoubtedly raise the level of tension amid insurgent forces in northern Syria yet further,” Lister said, adding that the perception within ISIL militant circles that the FSA is a hostile force will likely increase.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group monitoring the conflict, confirmed the death of al-Libi, which is a nom de guerre. It said he was killed with 12 other al-Qaida fighters near the village of Hazanu, 10 kilometers (six miles) from the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.
Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at London’s Chatham House, said the story surrounding rebel infighting was being used by the Assad regime to portray the opposition as unstable and dangerous.
“The story is being overblown, not because of the importance of the guy, but because it’s seen that he was killed by the FSA,” Shehadi said.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Raphael Satter in London and Lori Hinnant in Paris contributed to this report.