AP Interview: Syria chemicals deadline achievable

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The Dutch diplomat leading an international mission to dismantle Syria's chemical weapons program said Tuesday the pace of removing chemicals from the civil war-torn country is picking up and an end-of-June deadline for total destruction of the program is still achievable.

A spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons also said Damascus has said it can remove all chemicals from the country by the end of April.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Sigrid Kaag said Syria has agreed a 60-day timetable to accelerate and intensify efforts toward removal of the chemicals that will be destroyed outside the country.

"We anticipate a lot of action in the month of March," Kaag told the AP after briefing the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons' executive council in a closed-door meeting.

"But of course our message is always one of continued expectation to achieve more, to do more and to do it safely and securely."

OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan called the new timeline "very welcome news."

The international community is aiming to remove and destroy 1,300 metric tons of chemicals. Syria has been criticized for the slow pace of the operation and the Pentagon last week urged Damascus to speed up. Kaag said that to date nearly one third of the material has been removed or destroyed inside the country.

The international effort was sparked by an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people and was blamed on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which denied involvement.

Syrian ally Russia has been seen as a playing an important role in pressing Syria to get rid of the chemicals it stockpiled to turn into poison gas and nerve agents. It remains to be seen if tensions between the West and Moscow over Ukraine will have any effect on the Syria mission.

"I expect and certainly hope that the unity of purpose that has so far supported the joint mission and the implementation in country is retained," Kaag said, when asked if the Ukraine tensions could affect the mission.

Truckloads of chemicals are being driven from Syrian storage depots to the port of Latakia and loaded onto Norwegian and Danish cargo ships protected by warships. The chemicals will eventually be transferred to a U.S. ship, the MV Cape Ray, which has been fitted with special equipment that will neutralize hundreds of tons of the most toxic chemicals under close supervision by OPCW experts.