AMSTERDAM: Syria has shipped out about a third of its chemicals stockpile, including mustard gas, for destruction abroad, the global chemical arms watchdog said Tuesday.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague said Damascus had now handed over six consignments of the toxic agents it declared to the OPCW as part of a Russian-U.S. deal struck last year.
The OPCW said it had confirmed two more shipments headed for the Syrian port of Latakia. They are to be transferred to the U.S. ship MV Cape Ray and commercial destruction facilities in the United Kingdom and Germany.
Syria had also submitted a revised plan to remove all chemicals from its territory by the end of April 2014, the OPCW said. That proposal was being negotiated at an executive council meeting at the OPCW that began Tuesday.
Damascus missed deadlines in December and February to hand over chemicals, and diplomats are concerned it will also miss a final, politically significant deadline of mid-2014 to completely give up its chemical stockpile.
“Given delays since the lapse of the two target dates for removal, it will be important to maintain this newly created momentum,” OPCW chief Ahmet Uzumcu told delegates at the meeting.
“The Syrian government has reaffirmed its commitment to implement the removal operations in a timely manner,” Uzumcu said, adding that Syria now has all the equipment it needs to give up remaining chemicals, including armor for the protection of shipping containers.
But Western diplomats said the revised timetable was too slow for several Western countries, which say the chemical agents must be shipped out by the end of March if a final June 30 deadline agreed for complete destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons program is to be met.
The U.S. said it needs 90 days to destroy roughly 500 metric tons of the most poisonous substances in the arsenal of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Syria declared a total of 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons to the OPCW, the Nobel Peace prize winning body that is jointly overseeing the destruction process with the United Nations.
An appraisal of the situation was given by Sigrid Kaag, the head of the joint OPCW-U.N. mission.
“Nearly one third of Syria’s chemical weapons material has now been removed or destroyed,” Sigrid Kaag, told the organization. “This is good progress and I expect further acceleration and intensification of effort.”
“We anticipate a lot of action in the month of March,” Kaag told the AP after briefing the OPCW executive council.
“But of course our message is always one of continued expectation to achieve more, to do more and to do it safely and securely.”
OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan called the new timeline “very welcome news.”
The international effort was sparked by an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people and was blamed on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which denied involvement.
Syrian ally Russia has been seen as a playing an important role in pressing Syria to get rid of the chemicals it stockpiled to turn into poison gas and nerve agents. It remains to be seen if tensions between the West and Moscow over Ukraine will have any effect on the Syria mission.
“I expect and certainly hope that the unity of purpose that has so far supported the joint mission and the implementation in country is retained,” Kaag said, when asked if the Ukraine tensions could affect the mission.