Last updated: 8 January, 2014

Chemical watchdog urges Syria to speed up weapons handover

The world’s chemical watchdog called Wednesday for Syria to speed up operations to hand over its arsenal for destruction, after missing a key deadline.

“We are exhorting the Syrian government to intensify its efforts, so we can conclude this critical part of the mission absolutely as fast as the conditions allow,” Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons spokesman Michael Luhan told AFP.

The joint OPCW-UN mission said on Tuesday that a first cargo of chemicals had been brought to Syria’s port of Latakia and transferred to a Danish vessel, although all Syria’s most dangerous chemicals were supposed to have left the country by December 31.

So-called Priority One chemicals including mustard gas must all be destroyed by March 31.

OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu told a meeting of the body’s Executive Council on Wednesday that the removal of chemicals from Syria marked “an important new phase” in the unprecedented mission.

He noted delays caused by security, procurement and the weather, but said Syria now had “virtually all of the necessary logistical resources” to bring the priority chemicals to Latakia.

The Council “encouraged all States Parties in a position to do so to maintain the momentum.”

Escorted by Chinese, Danish, Norwegian and Russian naval vessels, the Danish ship will stand offshore until more chemicals arrive at Latakia and then return to collect them.

Syria agreed last year to a US-Russian deal to hand over its chemical weapons.

That came after US President Barack Obama threatened air strikes following an August chemical weapons attack outside Damascus which killed hundreds of people, and which Washington blamed on the Syrian regime.

Under the plan, the chemicals will be transported to an Italian port and offloaded onto US vessel the MV Cape Ray to be destroyed at sea.

The MV Cape Ray is due to leave port in the US “within about two weeks,” her Captain Rick Jordan said on Friday.

The 650-foot (197.5-meter) ship has been outfitted with two portable hydrolysis systems designed to neutralise the most dangerous chemicals in Syria’s arsenal.

In waters off Italy, about 700 tonnes of chemical agents will then be loaded onto the Cape Ray.

The US ship will then head out to an undisclosed location, possibly in the Mediterranean, to begin the task of neutralising the chemical agents.

The hydrolysis process is supposed to render the lethal agents into a sludge similar to industrial toxic waste.

Private firms will handle the disposal of the hazardous material, and the OPCW has launched an appeal for offers from contractors. Some 42 firms have already expressed an interest.

The neutralization work at sea is due to take about 45 to 90 days, according to the Pentagon.

Much will depend on the weather and conditions at sea.

The mission has a June 30 deadline to complete the destruction of all of Syria’s chemical weapons.

More than 130,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since March 2011.