Beirut - As deadly clashes raged on the edge of Damascus, international inspectors left their hotel on Wednesday to start work on the task of destroying Syria's chemical arsenal under the tightest of deadlines in the midst of a civil war.
The inspectors' mission - endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution passed last week - is to scrap Syria's capacity to manufacture chemical weapons by 1 November and eliminate the country's entire 1 000-ton stockpile by mid-2014.
A convoy of SUVs with UN markings could be seen departing the central Damascus hotel where the team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was staying.
It was not clear where the inspectors, who arrived in Syria on Tuesday from neighbouring Lebanon, were headed on their first full day in the country.
Their work comes against a backdrop of relentless fighting.
On the northern edge of the city, fierce clashes between Syrian troops and al-Qaeda-linked fighters left at least 12 soldiers and pro-government militiamen dead on Tuesday, anti-regime activists said, as the army pressed on with a campaign to dislodge opposition fighters from the capital.
The fighting in the contested district of Barzeh had flared up on Monday, when the army stepped up attacks against opposition forces who have been trying to capture the area for months, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Districts like Barzeh, on the edge of Damascus, are important for rebels based in the capital's outer suburbs in their effort to take their battle closer to President Bashar Assad's seat of power.
At least 19 government troops have been killed in Barzeh since Monday - including the 12 on Tuesday - and dozens of others have been wounded, the Observatory said.
The rebels, mostly from the ranks of al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, also sustained losses but did not disclose them, the Observatory said.
It also noted clashes in Jobar on the capital's eastern edge.
In northern Syria, the Observatory reported clashes between al-Qaeda rebels and more moderate groups in the town of Azaz on the Turkish border.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants made advances against fighters from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army rebels, the activists said. They did not have any reports of casualties.
Inter-rebel clashes, which have grown in intensity in recent months, add a new layer of complication to the 2-and-a-half year conflict, in which over 100 000 have died.