Jan Hennop, AFP
Last updated: 24 April, 2014

Syria chemical handover nearly complete

Syria has nearly completed surrendering its chemical weapons stockpile, a joint task force in charge of the operation said Thursday, as UN Security Council members called for a fresh probe into alleged gas attacks.

“Today’s operation brings the total of chemical material removed and destroyed to 92.5 percent,” the combined Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-UN task team said in a statement.

Damascus had pledged to have all of its stockpile removed from the war-ravaged country by Sunday. The weapons are then due to be destroyed by June 30.

The consignment of chemicals were delivered to the main Syrian port of Latakia, from where it will be removed by cargo ships for delivery to the US Navy vessel Cape Ray for destruction.

Syrian authorities also “destroyed buildings, equipment and empty mustard gas containers”, the OPCW-UN statement said.

“A majority of (storage and productions) sites are now closed,” the joint mission said.

“I welcome the significant progress of the last three weeks and I strongly encourage the Syrian authorities to conclude removal operations as part of their efforts to achieve the June 30 deadline,” the mission’s chief Sigrid Kaag said.

– Gas attack probe call –

In New York, Security Council members on Wednesday called for new claims of a chlorine gas attack in a rebel bastion in Syria to be probed after Kaag briefed them behind closed doors.

Joy Ogwu, Nigeria ambassador who holds the rotating presidency, said members “expressed concern about alleged reports about the use of chlorine gas in some of the towns, which left people dead and injured, and called for an investigation into this incident”.

France and the United States allege that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces may have unleashed industrial chemicals on a rebel-held village in central Hama province earlier this month.

There have been conflicting accounts of the alleged chlorine attack on Kafr Zita, with the government and the opposition trading blame.

Activists have also reported other chlorine gas attacks, most recently in Idlib province, in the northwest, on Monday.

Damascus has denied any part in the attacks.

Under the terms of a US-Russian brokered deal which averted the threat of US military action last year, Syria agreed to destroy its chemical stockpiles.

The deal was reached after deadly chemical attacks outside Damascus in August that reportedly killed hundreds.

The West blamed Assad’s regime but the government said rebels were behind it.

– Chemical issues remain –

As Syria — which in the past has missed several deadlines according to the deal — nears completing the handover, several issues however remain on the table, analysts and diplomats said.

It is unclear whether Syria itself will make Sunday’s deadline, sources said.

The last of the chemical stockpile remains near Damascus and cannot be accessed for security reasons, a source close to the OPCW told AFP.

Syrian representatives at the OPCW said at a meeting Wednesday they “hoped to celebrate the last of the removal” by the next Executive Council meeting scheduled for Tuesday, but gave no guarantees, another source added.

“They will complete the removal, but the question of production sites is still there,” added chemical weapons analyst Sico van der Meer of the Clingendael Institute.

He was referring to the often-heated topic of debate at OPCW Executive Council meetings on how Syria’s chemical production sites should be destroyed.

Damascus wants to seal the sites, which it says has already been rendered unusable while Western countries want them completely destroyed, fearing that they may be used in future for chemical purposes.

A diplomatic source told AFP that “this is an issue which may occupy the (41-country) Executive Council for a long time still”.

Van der Meer said this would benefit Syria and Assad’s forces as they battle to crush rebels in the three-year conflict, which has now killed more than 150,000 people, according to a monitoring group.

“Syria is playing for time, as long as the process of destroying its chemical weapons is underway, the international community is not going to bother it too much,” Van der Meer said.