By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia believes most of Syria's chemical arsenal should be removed from the country rather than destroyed there, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying on Friday.
Ryabkov spoke after meeting Sigrid Kaag, head of the joint United Nations-Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) mission to destroy Syria's chemical weapons.
"Much speaks in favor of the overwhelming portion of poisonous substances in Syria being removed beyond its borders," state-run news agency RIA quoted Ryabkov as saying. He did not explain the reasons for that view.
Russia has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's most powerful backer during the two-and-a-half-year-old conflict, blocking U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to pressure him and saying his exit cannot be a precondition for peace talks.
But under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States, Assad agreed to destroy all Syria's chemical weapons after Washington threatened to use force in response to a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of people on August 21.
The OPCW said on Thursday Syria had met a major deadline in the process - which is supposed to be complete by June - by destroying or rendering inoperable 21 out of 23 of its declared chemical weapons production and mixing facilities.
The two remaining locations could not be reached due to the war with rebels trying to topple Assad, but state media and a monitoring group said on Friday that the army had captured Safira, a northern town near a chemical arms site.
A source briefed on OPCW operations in Syria said Safira, southeast of Aleppo, was one of the two sites its experts had been unable to inspect. The chemical weapons facility itself has been under government control but emptied of equipment because of fighting nearby, according to the OPCW. [ID:nL5N0IM14Y]
By November 15, the OPCW and Syria must agree to a detailed plan of destruction, including how and where to destroy more than 1,000 metric tonnes of toxic agents and munitions.
In a statement issued after the talks between Ryabkov and Kaag, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that was a key second phase of Syria's chemical disarmament.
"During that (phase) the main stock of chemical weapons precursors will be consolidated in Syria's coastal zone and transported out of the country for their subsequent destruction in a third country that will give approval for liquidation under the control of OPCW and the Syrian authorities," it said.
Syria has asked the OPCW for permission to convert for peaceful use some of the facilities declared under its weapons program, an official at the organisation said on Friday.
The request would have to be approved by the OPCW's executive council.
"The Syrian foreign minister has submitted a list of 12-15 'items' such as power stations, buildings and storage facilities the country wants to use for non-military purposes," said the official, who asked not to be named.
"It's not entire factories. Some are just buildings and there is some power generation," the official said. "They would be converted for peaceful purposes."
Ryabkov said in September that Russia was ready to help guard Syrian chemical weapons sites and destroy stockpiles, but would not ship any of the arms to Russia for destruction.
Russia and the United States are destroying their own Cold War chemical arms and are the only countries with industrial-scale capacity to destroy many of the munitions, but the import of chemical weapons is banned by the laws of both countries.
On Friday, Ryabkov said there were options for their destruction outside Syria but that it would be premature to speak of them publicly, the Interfax news agency reported.
(Additional reporting by Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam and Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow,; Writing by Steve Gutterman,; Editing by Alistair Lyon)