Envoy: Last dangerous chemicals must leave Syria

Sigrid Kaag said that Syria has “legitimate” security concerns about transporting the final 7.2 percent of its declared chemical stockpile

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The head of the mission charged with destroying Syria’s chemical weapons called Wednesday on President Bashar Assad’s government and the international community to ensure that the last 16 containers of dangerous chemicals are immediately removed from the country.

Sigrid Kaag told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council that a number of key nations have confirmed that Syria has “legitimate” security concerns about transporting the final 7.2 percent of its declared chemical stockpile to the port of Latakia. She said the joint U.N.-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons mission which she heads has separate information that security conditions in the contested area not far from Damascus “have been very volatile.”

But she said getting the last containers on to Danish and Norwegian ships “is very, very critical” and she called for help from key nations. She said she will return to Damascus in a few days to press for immediate removal of the chemicals from “harm’s way.”

Kaag reiterated that Syria will not meet the June 30 deadline to completely destroy its chemical weapons. But she said in an interview with The Associated Press that the joint mission is hoping to wrap up and hand over its remaining work to the OPCW “within a finite period of time - count it on one hand in months.”

Diplomats say intelligence from several countries, including the United States, indicates that Syria may have hidden some chemical weapons material.

Kaag wouldn’t comment on these reports, but said in the interview that there were “a number of queries” about Syria’s initial declaration of its chemical agents “and a number of member states have expressed their concern.”

She said technical experts made two visits to Syria to discuss outstanding issues and would brief the OPCW’s executive council on their findings on June 17 at its headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands.

Kaag also said an OPCW fact-finding mission into alleged chlorine attacks in Syria, which was ambushed and briefly held by gunmen in rebel-held territory on May 27, left Syria last Friday.

The mission’s experts reported Wednesday “that they will continue their work from The Hague and collect as much information and evidence as possible,” she said. It was not clear whether the mission ever actually got to the site of an alleged chlorine attack.

The international effort to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons was sparked by a chemical weapons attack near Damascus last Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of people. It was blamed on Assad’s government, which denied involvement.

Under an agreement brokered by the United States and Russia, the Syrian government is responsible for getting the most dangerous chemicals to the port.

Kaag said the major area of concern in getting the last shipment of containers to Latakia is fighting in the Damascus suburb of Adra where the convoy needs to pass. But she stressed that security issues on the roads “doesn’t mean that additional delays can be incurred.”

Kaag pointed to “the tremendous cost” for the countries that have supplied the vessels to carry the containers and the ships escorting them, as well as the United States which is providing a ship, now in an Italian port, specially equipped with two machines that will render the chemicals inert. That process takes approximately 60 days.

Syrian authorities left the removal of chemicals from the contested site for a later time, Kaag said, knowing it would need additional security and possibly military operations, though officials told the government “that if you leave it for last there is a higher risk.”

Kaag said the Syrians have indicated that when security conditions permit removal will take place immediately which they indicated will be “very soon.”

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