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Syria presents new deadline for chemical weapons handover

After missing two deadlines to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile for destruction, Syria has pledged to finish the task before the end of April, the international watchdog overseeing the effort reported on Tuesday.

The country has sped up its handover of weapons and chemical precursors in recent weeks, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Two shipments were removed from Syria’s Mediterranean port of Latakia last week, with another expected to go next week, Director General Ahmet Uzumcu told the organization’s executive council, according to an OPCW news release.

The three consignments would account for half of all chemicals removed from the Middle East nation since the OPCW executive board agreed to a removal time frame in November. Syria has since missed both key deadlines in that agreement — one on Dec. 31 for removal of the most dangerous, or “priority one” chemicals, and a Feb. 5 deadline for all other chemicals.

International observers have criticized the Syrian government for the slow pace of removal, which the country blames on dangerous ground conditions due to the continuing civil war. Uzumcu expressed hope that the new pace of delivery would continue.

“Given delays since the lapse of the two target dates for removal, it will be important to maintain this newly created momentum,” he was quoted as saying in the news release.

With the six shipments, Syria will have handed over 35 percent of all chemical weapons and ingredients, including 23 percent of priority one chemicals, which include mustard agents, sarin and VX nerve agent, the OPCW reported.

The shipments are loaded in Latakia by multinational ships and transported to countries that have agreed to neutralize and destroy the chemicals.

The U.S. has volunteered to neutralize the priority one chemicals at sea, via a merchant ship refitted with a hydrolysis system. The ship, the MV Cape Ray, remains moored at a Navy base in southern Spain as it awaits the delivery of remaining priority one chemicals.

Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons program and stockpile last year following accusations from Western governments that it had employed the weapons in fighting. Syria was believed to possess more than 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, with 560 tons of priority one chemicals. It destroyed its chemical weapons production facilities in late 2013.

beardsley.steven@stripes.com

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