Syria misses deadline to remove chemical weapons

A December 31 deadline to remove part of the Syrian regime's chemical weapons arsenal from the country for destruction has been missed, with ships due to receive the materials returning to Cyprus.

In Syria, meanwhile, a newspaper quoted government officials as saying invitations to a peace meeting in Switzerland next month had not been issued, blaming the delay on disarray among the country's opposition groups.

And in northern Aleppo, at least 10 people were killed when a regime tank shell slammed into a bus in Aleppo city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

A Norwegian frigate and a Danish warship had been near the Syrian coast waiting to dock at the port in Latakia to escort chemical materials to Italy, ahead of their destruction at sea on a US ship. But the vessels returned to port in Cyprus on Monday night as it became clear that the removal mission would not go ahead as scheduled.

Lars Hovtun, a spokesperson for the Norwegian ship HNoMS Helge Ingstad gave no new date for the mission to escort the dangerous cargo out of Syria. "We are still on high alert to go into Syria," he said. "We still don't know exactly when the orders will come."

The international disarmament mission in Syria had acknowledged on Saturday it was "unlikely" the weapons could be transported to Latakia in time for the December 31 deadline set for the removal of key weapons components. But the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons remained positive on Tuesday, saying the overall plan to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal was on track.

"An enormous amount of work has been accomplished in three months," OPCW spokesperson Christian Chartier told AFP. "Syria's chemical arsenal has been completely neutralised, the chemical agents and chemical products are under international control, have been sealed … the effective dismantling of the production and filling plants is on course."

'Destroyed'
"All unfilled munitions have been destroyed, so even if the Syrians tried to get their hands on certain chemical products they wouldn't have the weapons to use them," Chartier said. "Their capacity to produce and use chemical weapons has been reduced to zero." 

Chartier said the operation was still on track to meet a deadline to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal by mid-2014.

"The most important deadline in our eyes is June 30, and nothing leads us to believe that it won't be met," he said.

The failure to meet the December 31 deadline underlines the complexity of the task of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons in the middle of a bloody civil war.

On Saturday, the UN and OPCW said the war, logistical problems, and bad weather had held up the transport of chemical agents to Latakia for pick-up. Syria agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and turn over its arsenal for destruction in the wake of a devastating chemical weapons attack that prompted the United States to threaten military action against Damascus.

The August 21 chemical attack, which the opposition and the United States blamed on the Syrian regime, is believed to have killed hundreds of people on the outskirts of Damascus.

Timeframe
Syria's Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi, addressing the Parliament on Tuesday, said the government was complying with its obligations. "We were able to accomplish what was agreed upon, destroying the chemical production and mixing sites," he said. 

"Now we have started collecting these materials so they can be transferred to the Syrian ports and taken to other places and destroyed within a timeframe that Syria has committed to."

On the diplomatic front, Syria's Al-Watan newspaper quoted a foreign ministry source as saying invitations to the a peace conference scheduled for January 22 in the Swiss town of Montreux. The source said invites were to have been sent by December 28, and the delay was "the result of the floundering efforts to form a delegation representing the 'opposition'".

The key opposition National Coalition has yet to officially announce it is attending the conference, and there are questions about whether staunch regime ally Iran will be invited.

In Aleppo city meanwhile, the observatory said 10 people, including two children, were killed when a regime tank shell hit a bus. The monitoring group said the toll could rise as many of those injured were in critical condition. – Sapa-AFP

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