Syria has started moving chemical weapons materials out of the country in a crucial phase of an internationally-backed disarmament program that has been delayed by war and technical problems.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons on Tuesday said that “priority chemical materials” were transported to the port of Latakia and onto a Danish vessel which was now sailing toward international waters.
Syria agreed to abandon its chemical weapons by June under a deal proposed by Russia and agreed with the US after an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack that Western nations blamed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Damascus blames the rebels for the attack.
War, bad weather, bureaucracy and technical issues meant that the original Dec. 31 deadline for the removal of the most deadly toxins from Syria was missed.
The organization did not disclose what percentage of Syria’s toxic arsenal — which totals 1,300 tonnes — had been removed, but said that nine containers of the most dangerous chemical materials were on the Danish cargo vessel.
“The vessel has been accompanied by naval escorts provided by Denmark and Norway, as well as the Syrian Arab Republic,” a statement said. “It will remain at sea awaiting the arrival of additional priority chemical materials at the port.”
Maritime security was being provided by Chinese, Danish, Norwegian and Russian ships.
Syrian government forces have taken back control of the highway linking Damascus to the coast, which is needed to transport the toxins.
Rebels were ousted from three towns along the road, but activists say convoys moving along it will remain vulnerable to rebel ambushes.
Washington welcomed the removal of chemical materials and said al-Assad’s government appeared to be sticking to the deal.
“Much more needs to be done,” US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a news briefing, adding: “We have no reason to believe that the regime has gone back on any aspect of their promise.”
On the battlefield, Syria’s bloodiest bout of rebel infighting since the war started nearly three years ago prompted the head of an al-Qaeda-linked rebel group to call for a ceasefire between opposition factions.
An audio recording from the leader of the powerful al-Nusra Front, known as Abu Mohammed al-Golani, laid much of the blame for the fighting on al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
While both groups have roots in the global Islamist network and welcome foreign militants, the front has cooperated more with other rebel groups and has largely avoided the power struggles that the ISIL has faced since wresting control of many opposition-held areas from other groups.
“Many rebel units have committed transgressions, just as the mistaken policies followed by played a prominent role in fueling the conflict,” al-Golani said. “In addition to this, there has been no agreement on legal solutions agreed upon by all major units.”
More than 274 people have been killed in the rebel-on-rebel clashes in Syria since they began on Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group.
Al-Golani proposed forming an Islamic legal council to resolve feuds among the rebels and called for the militants to return to their shared goal of fighting al-Assad’s forces, as the campaign to oust the Syrian president nears the end of its third year.