By Anthony Deutsch
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - A month-long tender for the commercial destruction of hundreds of tons of industrial chemicals and toxic waste from Syria's chemical weapons program starts on Thursday, officials said, with contracts likely to go to a handful of firms.
About 30 companies submitted "serious expressions of interest" for the work, the final stage of a complex task of chemical disarmament that poses security risks transporting the material in a war zone and requires technical know-how to render it safe and logistical coordination involving several countries.
The bidding procedure is due to be finalized by the end of January, officials at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, said on Wednesday.
Because of the need for tight security, officials want to limit the number of companies involved to just one or two.
The Nobel prize-winning body charged with overseeing the elimination of Syria's stockpile has earmarked up to 40 million euros ($55 million) for the work.
Among dozens of companies expected to bid are Veolia, a French waste management firm that has worked with the OPCW in several countries, and Finnish state-owned Ekokem, which has expressed an interest.
Veolia regularly treats toxic chemical waste and operates incineration facilities around the globe.
A source at the OPCW said one or more companies will be selected in the last week of January, hopefully just in time to process the chemicals by a March 31 deadline.
Syria is set to begin transporting the chemical weapons it declared to the OPCW, around 1,300 metric tons in total, in the coming weeks from a dozen sites across the country.
Under a deal brokered with Russia, Damascus agreed to transport the "most critical" chemicals, including around 20 tons of mustard nerve agent, out of the northern port of Latakia by December 31 to be destroyed safely abroad away from the war zone.
The OPCW fears that deadline could be missed.
"Schedules have been disrupted by a combination of security concerns, clearance procedures in international transit and even inclement weather conditions," the OPCW's chief, Ahmet Uzumcu, said in comments published on Wednesday.
"The continuing heavy fighting in the Qalamoun and surrounding areas and the closure of a major arterial road between Damascus and Homs, pose risks to the timely execution of the operation," he said.
The chemicals will first be transported by land across Syria in about 3,000 container drums, seen as the riskiest part of the operation because the convoys could be targeted by rebel forces in contested territory, or stolen by militant groups.
Russia is providing container lorries and armored trucks, water tanks and other logistical supplies. It also offered funding and security for cargo operations at the port and in Syrian territorial waters, the OPCW said. China is supplying surveillance cameras and 10 ambulances, it said.
Chemical weapons were likely used in five out of seven attacks investigated by OPCW experts in Syria, where a 2 1/2-year civil war has killed more than 100,000 people, a U.N. investigation found.
The most serious use was on August 21, when hundreds of people died in a sarin gas attack in the outskirts of the capital, Damascus. The worst poison gas attack in a quarter century prompted the threat of missile strikes by the United States against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The toxic cargo will be loaded onto Danish and Norwegian ships and escorted to a port in Italy by two frigates, also supplied by the Scandinavian countries.
In Italy, the chemicals will be transferred to a U.S. cargo ship, the MV Cape Ray. The 200-metre (650-foot) vessel is being outfitted with a chemical weapons treatment facility, the U.S. Army-developed Field Deployable Hydrolysis System.
The unit will process an estimated 500 metric tons of the most lethal agents, including mustard, sarin and other precursors.
Up to 7.7 million liters of toxic waste from that process and around 800 metric tons of industrial chemicals are to be processed in the commercial facilities.
All chemical substances and precursors declared by Syria, except for isopropanol, one of two key ingredients for sarin, are due to be out of Syria no later than February 5.
Syria's chemical weapons facilities, including all production, storage and research centers will be gradually destroyed between December 15 and March 15. All remaining declared chemical materials must be eliminated no later than June 30.
The OPCW has been in search of a country willing to provide a port where the MV Cape Ray can dock and can unload toxic waste from the procedure.
($1 = 0.7283 euros)
(Editing by Will Waterman)