Chemical watchdog meets on Syria as delays loom

The world's chemical watchdog was meeting Tuesday to agree exactly how Syria's arsenal will be destroyed outside the country, with the plan facing potential delays.

The hectic pace of the UN-backed plan to rid Syria of its entire chemical weapons stockpile by mid-2014 has slowed recently amid security problems in the war-ravaged country.

The head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Ahmet Uzumcu, admitted last week that there could be "slight delays", despite rare global agreement on pushing the plan forward.

Tuesday's meeting of the OPCW's Executive Council is supposed to agree just how to get the most dangerous chemicals out of Syria, with several countries having already announced their offers of help.

The United States has offered to destroy "hundreds of tonnes" of Category One chemicals -- including mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve gas -- aboard a specially-equipped ship in international waters.

Syria has a total declared stockpile of 1,290 tonnes of chemicals weapons, ingredients and precursors.

A Danish and a Norwegian frigate are waiting in Cyprus to escort Nordic cargo ships to collect the chemicals from Syria's main port Latakia, but the chemicals themselves are still at several sites around Syria, sources familiar with the matter said.

Uzumcu told an OPCW meeting last month that the road between Damascus and Homs was frequently closed and that "future verification activities will be impacted by this situation."

Joint UN-OPCW mission inspectors and Syrian regime forces, who are in charge of moving the chemicals, have struggled to get secure packaging materials to storage sites, because of the security situation but also because of severe cold weather and snow.

The OPCW had set itself a December 31 deadline for the most dangerous chemicals to be taken out of Syria, via Latakia.

It now calls this a "target date", but diplomats familiar with the matter said the target -- which is not part of a binding UN Security Council resolution -- was now unlikely to be met.

Italy has offered an unnamed port for the chemicals to be "transloaded" from the Nordic vessels to the US ship, the MV Cape Ray, although that operation will likely take place in secret.

Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino has said that OPCW officials will only brief Italian MPs on the "transloading" plan early in the New Year.

The OPCW has received expressions of interest from 42 companies around the world for destroying some of Syria's less-toxic chemicals, but also the effluent left over from destruction aboard the US ship.

It says it wants the tendering process for their destruction to begin as soon as possible after Tuesday's meeting.

A US-Russia deal for Syria to surrender its chemical arsenal narrowly averted US airstrikes on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, after Washington said 1,400 people were gassed in the rebel-held Ghouta area near Damascus in August.