BEIRUT: Syria has started moving chemical weapons materials out of the country in a crucial phase of an internationally backed disarmament program that has been delayed by war and technical problems.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Tuesday “priority chemical materials” were transported to the port of Latakia and onto a Danish vessel which was now sailing toward international waters.
War, bad weather, bureaucracy and technical issues meant a Dec. 31 deadline for the removal of the most deadly toxins from Syria was missed.
Tuesday’s shipment “initiates the process of transfer of chemical materials from the Syrian Arab Republic to locations outside its territory for destruction,” the OPCW said.
The ship, under escort by Chinese, Danish, Norwegian and Russian naval vessels, will stand offshore until more chemicals arrive at the port and then return to collect them.
The chemicals removed Tuesday will eventually be transferred to a U.S. ship, the Cape Ray, which has been fitted with special machinery, and destroyed on board.
Syria agreed last year to a U.S.-Russian deal to hand over its chemical weapons.
That came after U.S. President Barack Obama threatened airstrikes in response to an August chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds of people, which Washington blamed on the Syrian regime.
Damascus blamed the attack on rebel groups.
The OPCW did not disclose what percentage of Syria’s toxic arsenal – which totals 1,300 tons in all – had been removed but said nine containers of the most dangerous chemical materials were on the Danish cargo vessel.
Government forces have taken back control of the highway linking Damascus to the coast which is needed to transport the toxins.
Rebel were ousted from three towns along the road but activists say convoys moving along it will remain vulnerable to rebel ambushes.
Washington welcomed the removal of chemical materials and said Assad’s government appeared to be sticking to the deal.
“Much more needs to be done,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a news briefing, adding: “We have no reason to believe that the regime has gone back on any aspect of their promise.”
At OPCW headquarters in the Hague, director general Ahmet Uzumcu said the first removal was an “important step.”
“I encourage the Syrian government to maintain the momentum to remove the remaining priority chemicals, in a safe and timely manner, so that they can be destroyed ... as quickly as possible,” he said in a statement.