UNITED NATIONS - Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Dutch Mideast expert Sigrid Kaag on Wednesday to lead the team charged with destroying Syria's chemical weapons and announced stepped up efforts to hold a peace conference on Syria in mid-November.
The U.N. chief appeared with Kaag shortly after U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky announced her appointment and the official establishment of the joint mission of the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that she will lead.
Its goal is to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, all chemical precursors, and the equipment to produce the deadly weapons by mid-2014.
"We have no illusions on the challenges ahead," the secretary-general said. "The situation in Syria remains dangerous and unpredictable. The cooperation of all parties in Syria is required."
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Wednesday that inspectors have so far visited 11 of more than 20 sites linked to Syria's chemical weapons program. The team destroyed "critical equipment" at six sites as well as unloaded chemical weapons munitions, said the OPCW.
Nesirky said the joint mission was officially created on Wednesday and trust funds have been set up at both the U.N. and OPCW to help finance it.
Kaag, a fluent Arabic speaker who has been the assistant administrator of the U.N. Development Program, said she was honored and humbled to be chosen for "this very complex and challenging assignment." She said she would travel to The Hague, Netherlands, where the OPCW is based, on Friday evening for consultations and guidance from its director-general, Ahmet Uzumcu.
Ban praised the U.N. Security Council, which last month ended 2 1/2 years of paralysis on Syria by unanimously approving a resolution ordering the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, for quickly approving the appointment of Kaag.
"She will be responsible for overseeing all activities on the ground undertaken by the OPCW and the United Nations personnel" from Cyprus, where the joint mission will have its staging area and support base, Ban said.
Kaag will also coordinate international assistance that will be needed to complete the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons, he said.
At the same time, Ban stressed that "the United Nations has not lost sight for one moment of the wider tragedy that is still destroying Syria" and is "equally focused on reaching a political solution that will stop the appalling the violence and suffering being inflicted on the Syrian people."
The secretary-general said the U.N., the U.S. and Russia are "intensifying efforts" to hold a new conference in Geneva in mid-November to try to agree on a transitional government in Syria based on a plan adopted in that city in June 2012.
The United States, which supports the Syrian opposition, and Russia, which supports President Bashar Assad's government, have been trying to convene a new Geneva conference with the United Nations and assistance from the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Ban said he met briefly last week with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the conference of southeast Asian nations in Brunei. He said Brahimi met Kerry in London and will be traveling to the region in the coming days for consultations with key parties. His deputy, Nasser Al Kidwa, will be traveling to Turkey for talks with the opposition, Ban said.
"We are calling on all who truly wish to work for peace and a new, democratic Syria to focus not on military actions but rather on ensuring the success of this conference," the secretary-general said.