Dario Thuburn, AFP
Last updated: 16 January, 2014

Chemical watchdog worried over Syria attack reports

The head of the world’s chemical weapons watchdog voiced concern on Thursday about reports from the Syrian government of attacks on two chemical facilities but said they could not be independently verified.

“The Syrian authorities have reported attacks on two sites,” Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said on a visit to Rome.

“It would be worrying if there are attempts to capture those chemicals. I don’t think it’s in the interests of anyone,” he said, as Italy prepared later Thursday to announce the the port where the chemicals will be taken.

A United Nations-backed plan to destroy Syria’s 1,290-tonne declared chemical weapons arsenal has been delayed by the fighting raging across the country.

Uzumcu said that talks were ongoing for “temporary truces” to allow the safe passage of chemical arms convoys to the Syrian port of Latakia for loading.

The OPCW chief also said there had been a delay over requests from the Syrian government for extra security equipment for the convoys, including armoured vehicles.

He said “most” of the Syrian demands would be met.

Uzumcu said he was still confident the arsenal would be destroyed by June 30 as specified in a September 2013 UN resolution and said co-operation on chemical weapons could help foster a broader peace process in Syria.

“The international community should seize this opportunity to extend this consensus to other areas,” Uzumcu said, speaking ahead of Syria peace talks dubbed Geneva II due to start on January 22.

“The current compromise on this particular limited issue may have paved the way for a wider process.”

He told AFP in an interview that the transfer of Syrian chemical agents from a Danish ship onto a US vessel in an as-yet-unnamed Italian port was now expected to take place “by the end of January or early February”.

The transit of some 500 tonnes of Syria’s deadliest chemicals including mustard gas and the ingredients for the nerve agents sarin and VX, which could take up to 48 hours, has already sparked local concern in Italy.

“Every possible measure is being taken for a safe trans-loading. The risks are very obvious and we have taken every measure to minimise these risks,” he said.

Ugo Cappellacci, the regional governor of Sardinia, which is referred to in the Italian press as the most likely choice for the operation, said on Wednesday he does not want his island to be “Italy’s waste bin”.

“We are absolutely opposed to the transit,” he said.

Commercial and military ports in the Calabria, Puglia and Sicily regions in southern Italy are also possible.

The Danish ship earlier this month took a first cargo of materials from Latakia and is now back in international waters under military protection, awaiting a return to pick up the remainder.

Uzumcu said the initial load was “a little more than 16 tonnes”.

Once the ship has fully loaded, the plan is it will sail to Italy, escorted by Danish and Norwegian warships.

US ship expected to set off for Italy by next week

In Italy, the chemicals will be transferred onto the US ship MV Cape Ray, which will destroy them at sea — to avoid risks to civilian areas — over a period of up to three months using specially-built mobile hydrolysis equipment.

The MV Cape Ray is still in the United States and is expected to set off this week or early next week for the two-week voyage to Italy.

US army personnel on board will be charged with neutralising the chemicals under the supervision of OPCW inspectors.

The chemicals, which are only weapons if mixed and fitted on munitions, will be combined with neutralising agents and the hazardous waste generated will be stored on the ship and then disposed of commercially.

The operation could take as little as 45 days if the weather is calm but is expected to last 90 days.

UN Security Council resolution 2118 was passed after a massive chemical weapon attack that killed hundreds in several opposition areas around Damascus in August.

Rebels and the regime exchanged blame for that attack.