War and weather delay Syria's chemical weapons removal

Georgina Prodhan

Chemical arms watchdog OPCW has said Syria will likely miss its December 31 deadline to remove the "most critical" warfare chemicals from the country.

Russia and the US are spearheading international efforts to remove Syria's chemical weapons after the sarin gas attack in Damascus on August 21. (AP)

The removal of deadly toxins from Syria under an international effort to rid the nation of its chemical arsenal will likely miss a December 31 deadline, the global chemical arms watchdog said.

The weather-related closure of the main Beirut-Damascus transport route and constantly shifting battlefronts in Syria's civil war have hampered the delivery of logistical supplies and lorries to the toxin storage sites, where the chemicals are being prepared to be sent to Latakia port, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

"A delay will probably occur," OPCW logistics head Franz Krawinkler told Austrian ORF state television on Saturday.

"Because of various external influences, including the weather ... certain logistical supplies that are needed for this transport could not be delivered in time."

Syria has agreed to abandon its chemical weapons by June next year under a deal proposed by Russia and hashed out with the United States after a sarin gas attack on August 21, which Western nations blamed on President Bashar al-Assad's government.

Damascus agreed to transport the "most critical" chemicals, including more than 18 tonnes of blister agent mustard gas, out of the northern port of Latakia by December 31 to be safely destroyed in international waters outside of Syria, away from the war zone.

Treacherous journey
Russian diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov was quoted as saying on Friday that the deadline would be missed because the toxins that can be used to make nerve agents sarin gas, VX gas and others still faced a potentially hazardous trip to Latakia.

"The removal has not yet begun," Russia's RIA news agency quoted Ulyanov as saying after an international meeting on the chemical arms removal effort. Ulyanov heads the Russian foreign ministry's disarmament department.

Russia, which has given Assad crucial support during almost three years of civil conflict in Syria, airlifted 75 armoured vehicles and trucks to the nation last week to carry chemicals to Latakia.

Syrian government forces took control of a key highway connecting Damascus to the coast earlier this month, but Ulyanov said the trip could still be treacherous. "They will have to be taken on dangerous roads, there are several dangerous stretches."

He said experts from several countries, the United Nations and OPCW had reached a "common understanding of the main points" of a plan to get the toxins from the port into international waters, but gave no details.

Ulyanov said on Wednesday that while they were in Syrian waters, Russian and Chinese warships would escort the Danish and Norwegian container ships that are to carry the toxins away for destruction further from the war zone. – Reuters

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