U.N. watchdog urges Syria to speed up chemical arms destruction

On Monday, a third shipment of chemical material left Syria to be destroyed overseas

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The head of a mission overseeing the dismantling of Syria's chemical arsenal has urged Damascus to speed up operations, amid Western concerns the regime is deliberately dragging its feet.

Sigrid Kaag, in an interview with AFP late Tuesday, was confident however that a mid-2014 deadline for the regime's entire arsenal to be destroyed would be met.

Syria, Kaag said, was continuing to display “constructive cooperation” despite missing several deadlines to ship chemical material out of the country.

“Some delays have been encountered, but they have not been insurmountable and we remain confident that the deadline of 30th June 2014 will be met,” she said.

“What's important... is that there is an acceleration and intensification of efforts as we progress in time towards the deadline,” she said.

“But yes, there is constructive cooperation at the political and at the technical level.”

Under the terms of a U.N. resolution based on a deal hammered out by the United States and Russia, Syria is to turn over all of its chemical weapons for destruction in-country or abroad.

The entire arsenal is scheduled to be destroyed by June 2014 in a mission overseen by the joint U.N.-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons team that Kaag heads.

On Monday, a third shipment of chemical material left Syria to be destroyed overseas.

But Damascus has missed several key deadlines to move material, prompting the Security Council and OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu to urge it to speed up the process.

“A significant effort is needed to ensure the chemicals that still remain in Syria are removed -- in accordance with a concrete schedule and without further delay,” Uzumcu warned earlier this week.

US President Barack Obama on Tuesday put the onus on Syria ally Russia to make sure the deadlines are met.

“Syria must meet its commitments and Russia has a responsibility to ensure that Syria complies,” Obama said at a Washington press conference with French President Francois Hollande.

The Syrian government has said it remains committed to the June 30, 2014 deadline, but that security problems related to the ongoing conflict were causing delays.

Kaag acknowledged unforeseen delays, including logistical and security issues.

“It's a very complex operation,” she said. “It is an unprecedented effort under very challenging conditions. The country is at war.”

She added, however, that the “very precarious” security situation in the country should encourage a speedy process.

“That's even more reason to make sure that the operation is completed as soon as possible, as one doesn't know, all things being equal, how conditions may change.”

The U.N. Security Council last week said “Syria has sufficient material and equipment” as well as “substantial international support” to meet the deadlines.

Syria agreed to hand over its chemical weapons for destruction after Washington threatened military action in response to a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus in August 2013.

The United States and the Syrian opposition blamed the attack, which reportedly killed hundreds of people, on the Syrian regime.

It denied involvement, but under pressure agreed to dismantle its chemical weapons program.

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