OPCW voices concern over alleged attacks on Syrian chemical facilities

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Published Thursday, January 16, 2014

Updated at 3:00pm: The head of the world's chemical weapons watchdog voiced concern on Thursday about reports from the Syrian government of attacks on two chemical facilities but said they could not be independently verified.

"The Syrian authorities have reported attacks on two sites," Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said on a visit to Rome.

"It would be worrying if there are attempts to capture those chemicals. I don't think it's in the interests of anyone," he said, as Italy prepared later Thursday to announce the the port where the chemicals will be taken.

Uzumcu also mentioned that the removal and destruction of the most dangerous agents in Syria's chemical weapons arsenal may not be completed until the end of June.

He told reporters the amount of chemicals that have reached a Syrian port so far was "not that high."

Under the UN resolution on the agreement, Syria's chemical weapons arsenal is to be destroyed by mid-2014.

But the plan to destroy Syria's 1,290-ton declared chemical weapons arsenal has been delayed by the fighting raging across the country.

Uzumcu said that talks were ongoing for "temporary truces" to allow the safe passage of chemical arms convoys to the Syrian port of Latakia for loading.

The OPCW chief also said there had been a delay over requests from the Syrian government for extra security equipment for the convoys, including armored vehicles.

He said "most" of the Syrian demands would be met.

The destruction of chemical weapons began under the terms of a UN resolution that enshrined a US-Russian agreement for President Bashar al-Assad's government to turn over its chemical weapons for destruction.

The deal was hammered out in the wake of an August 21 sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus, which the United States blamed on Assad, a charge the Syrian government denies.

Washington threatened military action in response to the chemical attack, but a strike was averted after the US-Russia deal was agreed.

Uzumcu told AFP in an interview that the transfer of Syrian chemical agents from a Danish ship onto a US vessel in an as-yet-unnamed Italian port was now expected to take place "by the end of January or early February."

The transit of some 500 tons of Syria's deadliest chemicals including mustard gas and the ingredients for the nerve agents sarin and VX, which could take up to 48 hours, has already sparked local concern in Italy.

"Every possible measure is being taken for a safe trans-loading. The risks are very obvious and we have taken every measure to minimize these risks," he said.

Ugo Cappellacci, the regional governor of Sardinia, which is referred to in the Italian press as the most likely choice for the operation, said on Wednesday he does not want his island to be "Italy's waste bin."

"We are absolutely opposed to the transit," he said.

Commercial and military ports in the Calabria, Puglia and Sicily regions in southern Italy are also possible.

The Danish ship earlier this month took a first cargo of materials from Latakia and is now back in international waters under military protection, awaiting a return to pick up the remainder.

Uzumcu said the initial load was "a little more than 16 tons."

Once the ship has fully loaded, the plan is it will sail to Italy, escorted by Danish and Norwegian warships.

(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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