Assad says will abandon chemical arms once U.S. stops threats

Reuters
Image from RU24 video footage shows Syria's President Assad speaking during an interview in Damascus
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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview in Damascus in this image from a September …

By Thomas Grove

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Syria's President Bashar al-Assad said he would only finalise plans to abandon his chemical arsenal when the United States stopped threatening to attack him, in an interview broadcast on Thursday.

Syria applied on Thursday to sign up to the global treaty on chemical weapons, a major first step in a Russian-backed plan that would see Damascus give up its stocks of poison gas to avert U.S. military strikes.

Assad told Russian state television he was ready to take further steps - including handing over information on stockpiles - but added the process would not be completed until Washington stopped its threats.

"I want to make it clear to everybody: these mechanisms will not be fulfilled one-sidedly. This does not mean that Syria will sign the documents, meet the conditions and that is it. This is a bilateral process, it is aimed, first and foremost, at the United States ending the policy of threats targeted at Syria," Assad said.

"When we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack, and also ceases arms deliveries to terrorists, then we will believe that the necessary processes can be finalised," he said in comments translated into Russian.

Washington had threatened strikes to punish Assad for a reported chemical attack on areas controlled by Syrian rebels on August 21.

But U.S. President Barack Obama put the plans on hold when Russia came up with an 11th-hour proposal for Syria to agree to give up its chemical arms, an initiative that has transformed diplomacy in the 2-1/2-year-old civil war.

The interview with Assad was broadcast as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry were due to start talks in Geneva where a Russian delegation is expected to outline details of the plan.

Assad said Syria would send a petition to the United Nations and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons "in the next couple of days".

A U.N. spokesman said it had already received documents relating to Syria joining the convention.

"In my view, the agreement will go into effect a month after the signing (of the convention) and Syria will begin handing over information to international organisations about its stockpiles of chemical weapons. These are standard processes, that are expected and we will abide by them," the Syrian president said.

Dressed in a white shirt and dark suit and seated in a wood-panelled office, Assad said Syria decided to cede control of its chemical weapons because of a Russian proposal and not the threat of U.S. military intervention.

It was unclear exactly when and where the interview took place.

Assad's comments echo those of Russian President Vladimir Putin who has said the initiative will not succeed unless Washington abandons plans for potential air strikes.

Assad, who accused his opponents of carrying out last month's chemical attack, has said that any military strike would destabilise the entire Middle East.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in violence between forces loyal to Assad and rebels fighting to overthrow him.

(Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Steve Gutterman)

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