DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria's government will try to move the most lethal components of its chemical weapons program to a port city by the end of the year, and the U.S. has offered to pick up and destroy the hazardous material at an offshore facility, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and Syrian officials said Saturday.
The international organization's director-general, Ahmet Uzumcu, said in The Hague, Netherlands, that the U.S. government will contribute "a destruction technology, full operational support and financing to neutralize" the weapons — most likely on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea. The weapons are to be removed from Syria by Dec. 31.
Separately, the woman appointed as go-between for the United Nations and the OPCW on destroying Syria's chemical weapons stockpile laid out some logistical details. Sigrid Kaag said the weapons will first be sealed and packaged and then transported from multiple sites within Syria to the country's largest port, Latakia. Then they will be loaded onto ships owned by other OPCW members before a second hand-off to U.S. vessels.
The weapons and chemicals "will not be (destroyed) in Syrian territorial waters," Kaag said at a news conference in Damascus.
Kaag, who is due to travel to The Hague by Monday, said the mission will require international contributions in terms of packaging material, other logistic needs and special equipment needed to get the job done.
The OPCW was given the responsibility of overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal under an agreement reached between the U.S. and Syrian ally Russia on Sept. 14. The U.S. then shelved plans for a military strike on Syria's government as punishment for a chemical weapons attack in August that killed hundreds of people, including many children, in rebel-held Damascus suburbs. Syria's government acknowledged it possessed chemical weapons and committed to giving them up.
Since then, the OPCW has been scrambling to meet ambitious deadlines for disarming and destroying Syria's estimated 1,300-ton arsenal, which includes mustard gas and some precursor materials for sarin. Syria's production capacity was destroyed or rendered inoperable by the end of October, the OPCW said, and now it is tackling the tougher problem of how to deal with its existing weapons and hazardous chemicals.
An initial plan to destroy chemicals and weapons in a third country was rejected after no nation was willing to accept the hazardous waste. The possibility of destroying chemicals and weapons in Syria itself was rejected as unworkable amid the country's civil war.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad told the Lebanon-based TV station Al-Mayadeen Saturday that Damascus is willing to transport the weapons to Latakia but "we need equipment. We need armored vehicles and monitoring equipment so that terrorists don't attack these convoys."
Asked whether equipment for safe storage of chemicals is already being transported into Syria from Lebanon, Mekdad said "it will start entering." He added that several countries including Russia have promised to donate equipment.
"We in Syria are ready," he said. "We are not cooperating (with the destruction operation) 99 percent: We are cooperating 100 percent."
He and Kaag both said the year-end deadline can be achieved, but obstacles — such as a closure of the Homs-Damascus road — could cause delays.
In Saturday's statement, the OPCW said a U.S. naval vessel "is undergoing modifications to support the operations and to accommodate verification activities by the OPCW."
The Associated Press reported on Thursday that the ship in question is likely the MV Cape Ray, which would destroy chemical materials using a process developed by the Pentagon but never employed in an actual operation.
Citing several U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to identify themselves, the AP reported the U.S. plans to use what it calls a mobile Field Deployable Hydrolysis System to process the chemical material, making it unusable as weapons. The system was developed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is an arm of the Pentagon. Its titanium reactor uses heated water and chemicals to neutralize hazardous materials.
According the officials, two of the hydrolysis units would be mounted on the Cape Ray under the current plan.
Separately, the OPCW is drawing up plans to remove 800 tons of dual-use chemicals, many of which are common industrial chemicals, from Syria by Feb. 5 and later destroy them through private companies. All elements of Syria's chemical weapons program are due to be eradicated by mid-2014.
Uzumcu said Saturday that 35 private companies have applied so far to participate and are at an early stage of being vetted. He also called on governments of the 190 countries that belong to the OPCW to contribute funds to the effort, or by contracting directly with companies to help destroy chemicals.
The OPCW's executive council met Friday night and a general meeting of member states begins Monday.
Bassem Mroue contributed to this story from Beirut, Lebanon. Sterling contributed from Amsterdam.