Ships to haul 500 tons of Syrian chemical agents

December 14, 2013

LIMASSOL, Cyprus (AP) — Danish and Norwegian ships can safely ferry up to 500 tons of Syria’s most dangerous chemical weapons out of the strife-torn country, a Danish chemical expert said Saturday.

Bjoern Schmidt said sealed containers full of chemical compounds, which when mixed can create lethal Sarin and VX gases, will be loaded at opposite ends of the two cargo ships. The exact quantity of chemicals to be taken out of Syria is unknown, Schmidt said.

Cmdr. Henrik Holck Rasmussen, of Danish frigate HDMS Esbern Snare, said two cargo ships will go to Syria as many times as needed to pick up all chemical weapons. The Danish warship and Norwegian frigate HNOMS Helge Ingstad will act as escorts. Both are docked in Cyprus along with the Danish cargo ship Ark Futura. The second cargo ship, which Norwegian shipper Wilh. Wilhelmsen ASA identified to the Associated Press as the MV Taiko, hasn’t arrived yet.

The joint U.N.-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons team in Syria aims to remove most chemical weapons from Syria by the end of the year for destruction at sea and destroy the entire program by mid-2014. The unprecedented disarmament in the midst of a civil war was launched following an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb that killed hundreds of civilians.

The U.S. and Western allies accused the Syrian government of being responsible for that attack, while Damascus blames the rebels. Syria has agreed to dismantle its chemical arsenal to ward off possible U.S. military strikes.

Schmidt said according to plan by the OPCW which is in charge of the entire operation, the cargo ships will take the chemicals to the harbor of an as yet unidentified country where the most dangerous chemicals will be transferred onto American ship MV Cape Ray.

The ship is equipped with technology that can largely neutralize the chemicals. The process will take place at sea and the mostly inert chemicals will receive additional treatment at another facility.

Schmidt said the transfer can take place at sea, but that would mean additional risks given weather conditions and rough seas. “I think the safest thing is to go into a harbor,” Schmidt said. Croatia has said that it would consider providing one of its ports for the transfer of the chemicals as long as there’s no public opposition.

Danish Commodore Torben Mikkelsen, who is commanding the joint Danish-Norwegian operation, said it’s unlikely the cargo ships would take any chemical weapons aboard until a harbor is found where they can be transferred onto the American ship.

“If there’s no country willing to take the cargo or willing to participate with the transload, we’re not going to take the stuff aboard,” said Mikkelsen. “We need to know the transload or the disembarkation harbor. Then we’re ready to go.”

The containers will be inspected and sealed by OPCW officials and Syrian authorities at Latakia port. Each will be equipped with anti-handling and GPS tracking devices. Norwegian and Danish officials will scan the containers once they are aboard the cargo ships using a mobile container scanner, Mikkelsen said.

Mikkelsen said they’re still waiting for word on when the operation can begin and the ships can set sail for the trip to Latakia about 166 miles (267 kilometers) from Limassol port. Norwegian frigate commander Per Rostad said there are no plans to put any of the approximately 360 crew members aboard the two warships on the ground at Latakia port. A Finnish team of chemical experts is also aboard the ship to assist the operation.

Schmidt said it’s unclear what will happen with other, less dangerous chemicals that the cargo ships will be hauling. He said they’ll either be transferred to the American ship or a land-based facility for disposal.

Mikkelsen said crews aboard the Danish and Norwegian warships as well as the cargo ships are now undergoing training to deal with any safety issues that may arise, primarily from rough weather. Schmidt said the biggest safety risk is when the containers and other drums full of the chemicals will be opened aboard the American ship.

Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

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