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In Greece uproar over plan to dispose of Syrian chemical weapons in the Mediterranean

ATHENS, Greece — From priests and environmentalists to trawlers and tour operators, thousands of Greeks took to the streets of Crete Sunday to protest a United Nations program designed to destroy Syrian chemical weapons in the Mediterranean, turning one of the most popular holiday hot spots in Europe into a potential graveyard of drifting, highly toxic agents.

Staged in Arkadi, a small village tucked in the highlands of Crete and reknown for a bloody local revolt against Ottoman occupiers 150 years ago, the protest marks the latest show of local resistance to the international operation, which demonstrators deem the deadliest threat yet to the environment and their livelihood. Crete police and organizers contacted by phone, put the number of demonstrators at over 10,000, making the protest the biggest yet in Europe against the United States-led decommission plan.

“We will not let this happen,” said Yannis Haronitis, an activist and protest organizer. “They want to destroy these weapons — well, let them turn Syria’s back yard into a toxic waste dump, not ours.”

Under an agreement brokered by the United States and Russia, all of Syria’s chemical arsenal must be decommissioned and destroyed by June 30 — a goal that is becoming increasingly unlikely amid missed deadlines and foot-dragging by Damascus.

What’s more, as relations between Washington and Moscow sour amid Russian moves to take over the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, international observers fear the plan to clear Syria of its chemical arsenal may stall even further. Russia remains Syria’s most powerful backer and its role in brokering the decommissioning deal at the side of the United States last fall, proved pivotal.

Since the start of the year about half of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons have been shipped out of the war-ravaged country, with vessels from the United States, Norway and Denmark ferrying consignments to several European locations hosting special land-based disposal facilities.

The most contentious part of the project, however, includes a plan to neutralize some 20 tons of mustard gas and neurotoxic agents in international waters between Gavdos, a tiny island off the shore of Crete, and Malta, on board a 648-foot U.S vessel acting as a mobile station for destroying chemical weapons. Under the international agreement, Russian naval vessels have been enlisted to guide and mind the sea-based destruction on board the U.S container ship MV Cape Ray — a part of the project that has been call off for the time being.

If the sanctions that Washington recently imposed on Moscow intensify,  experts warn that the added strain in U.S-Russian relations could impact how Russia will chooses to influence — or not — what Syria does the rest of its chemical arsenal.

“I think what you are likely to see is that the regime of Syrian President Bashara al-Assad will comply just enough, at a slower pace as it consolidates its hold over the country militarily, “ Andrew Tabler, a Syrian expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told National Public Radio on Saturday.

Trying to face down mounting protests in Greece, the government insists that the sea-based disposal of chemical weapons poses no environmental threat. Still, experts fear the potential of a fallout, especially in a region of the Mediterranean riddled with shipwrecks and known for its turbulent seas.

“This is an unprecedented exercise,” warns Evangelos Gidarakos, professor of Environmental Engineering at the Technical University of Crete. “The potential risks and dangers entailed are enormous.

“The toxicity of these agents is so high that if something goes wrong, especially during the critical loading phase when the chemicals have not been diluted, the scope of destruction could be disastrous not only to the environment and but to every living organism living in and around it.”

For a cash-strapped country reeling from six years of brutal austerity, struggling to bounce back with the help of its biggest money-making industry, tourism, Cretans insist the government should give the contentious project a pass.

With European parliamentary elections nearing, the controversy has become a hot campaign issue. Just this month, some 152 registered voters on Gavdos, Europe’s southern-most isle, agreed to boycott the ballot in May to protest what they called “government inaction” to the dumping plan.

Activists anticipate the “No Vote” campaign to grow in the coming weeks, spreading to Crete and spilling over to Malta and Italy, where consignments of chemical weapons are being stored before being transported to the MV Cape Ray, the mobile U.S. Navy vessel where the toxic agents are to be destroyed in June.

Seven countries are directly contributing to the decommissioning process, while a total of 14, including cash-strapped Greece, are providing funding.

“This isn’t just a local protest,” said Evangelia Kallinikou, the deputy mayor of Gavdos. “It’s the start of a much bigger effort and we will not stop until the project is called off entirely”