Security threat to Syria weapons plan

U.N. official warns that dangers along key roads could set back schedule to destroy chemical arsenal

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Bad security in Syria threatens to set back the ambitious attempt to destroy the country’s chemical weapons arsenal by mid-2014, the head of the global chemical-weapons watchdog warned on Wednesday.

Preparations are underway to move the most dangerous chemical agents to Syria’s Mediterranean port of Latakia, but dangers along key roads could delay the plan, said Sigrid Kaag, head of the joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Syria mission.

“There are factors beyond our control” which could affect the schedule, Kaag told reporters.

As an example, she said, bad security on the highway connecting Damascus and the northern city of Homs, which is a key artery en route to Latakia, forced her to fly to Beirut and then to Latakia by helicopter for a meeting in recent days.

The highway has been the scene of a months-long government offensive against rebels. Kaag said it would be “a real issue” if the route can’t be used to transport containers of chemicals to the port.

The Syrian government is responsible for providing security for the transfer of the containers to Latakia, “and of course there are security constraints that are serious,” Kaag said.

But for now, she said, there is no alternative to using Latakia.

A Syria-based OPCW spokesperson told Al Arabiya News on Thursday that while most dangerous chemical weapons should be out of the country by Dec. 31, lower priority, unmixed chemical agents in the Syrian regime‘s arsenal would be shipped out by Feb. 5.

France’s U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud, the current council president, said the first “crunch points” in eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons were getting access to the sites and preparing the chemical agents for transport, and this “has been possible.”

He said “the next crunch points” are transporting the containers with chemical agents to Latakia, which will depend on security on the roads “which is still doubtful” - and then transporting the containers out of the country for destruction and final disposal of the chemicals.

Meanwhile, the watchdog and the United Nations are still waiting for an unidentified country to approve the usage of its port to load Syria’s most deadly chemicals onto a U.S. ship for destruction offshore, Reuters reported Kaag as saying.

Kaag briefed the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday but did not identify which country she had been in talks with.

The OPCW said on Saturday the United States had started modifying a U.S. naval vessel to be able to destroy Syria’s 500 tons of chemicals, including actual nerve agents - neutralizing them offshore with other chemicals in a process known as hydrolysis.

Italy, Norway and Denmark have offered to transport Syria’s chemicals from the northern Syrian port of Latakia with military escorts. The chemicals would then be transferred to the U.S. ship at another port.

“We’re still awaiting confirmation by a member state that a port is available for trans-loading, so it will be trans-loading in a port,” Reuters quoted Kaag as telling reporters after briefing the council.

When asked if the port to be used would likely be in the Mediterranean, she said: “The geographic range is quite significant, so no, not necessarily. At the moment, we’re discussing and we’re hoping to have early confirmation soon.”

(With Reuters and AP)

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