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Plan to destroy Syrian toxins advances, despite setbacks

The Danish cargo ship Ark Futura, which will take part in a joint Danish-Norwegian mission to transport Syria’s chemical weapons, lies docked at Limassol port in Cyprus. (Pavlos Vrionides/AP)

The organization overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons said Wednesday that it is on track to remove the most dangerous toxins from Syrian soil early in the new year, despite struggles in finding countries willing to accept them.

Ahmet Uzumcu, the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the group has finalized plans for destroying the chemicals at sea, with the assistance of the United States and other countries.

The plan envisions a complex operation that would quickly remove an estimated 1,000 metric tons of toxic liquids from Syria and then, in a series of handoffs, transfer them to a U.S. vessel equipped with machines that will convert them into less-toxic compounds.

“The major elements of such a transportation and destruction plan are in place,” Uzumcu told OPCW officials meeting at the group’s headquarters in The Hague.

Uzumcu acknowledged the possibility of further delays to a project that has been plagued by security concerns, bad weather and an inability to find a country willing to host a decontamination facility.

“We must, however, remember that the mission in the Syrian Arab Republic is making progress against heavy odds,” he said.

Although some details of the OPCW’s plan are being kept secret, Uzumcu confirmed that the organization has accepted an offer by the United States to destroy the bulk of Syria’s liquid toxins on a specially modified cargo ship, the MV Cape Ray. Russia has agreed to supply trucks to haul the chemicals to Syria’s Latakia port, where they will be loaded onto Danish and Norwegian ships. Italy has offered the use of a port — yet to be identified — for transferring the liquids to Cape Ray, OPCW officials said.

The toxins are to be chemically neutralized aboard the U.S. ship in a process that should be completed by late March, the organization said. Syria’s entire arsenal — including a small number of artillery shells and rockets loaded with sarin — is set to be eliminated by June 30.

Independent experts said the process of destroying Syria’s stockpile appears to have regained momentum after suffering a major blow last month, when Albania backed away from a commitment to host the decontamination facility. U.S. and Russian officials who initially brokered the agreement to destroy the arsenal had set ambitious deadlines, due in part to worries that Syria could change its mind, or that weapons could be lost or stolen as fighting between government troops and rebel militias spread.

“The deadlines give the necessary urgency to the undertaking, but ultimately they represent political compromises,” said Jean Pascal Zanders, a Paris-based chemical weapons expert who runs a blog on chemical weapons. In the coming weeks, “some shifts are possible, provided there are objective reasons to justify them,” he said.

Syria agreed to surrender its arsenal of nerve and mustard agents after the Obama administration threatened a military strike over President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged used of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. More than 1,000 Syrians were killed in August after rockets containing sarin gas landed in villages east of Damascus.

Joby Warrick joined the Post’s national staff in 1996. He has covered national security, intelligence and the Middle East, and currently writes about the environment.

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