US suggests destruction unit for Syria's chemical weapons

AMSTERDAM/WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The Pentagon is suggesting the world's chemical weapons watchdog uses a US-made mobile destruction unit in Syria to neutralise the country's toxic stockpile, officials said.

It gave a briefing on the unit on Tuesday to officials at the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, who are deciding what technology to use for the ambitious chemical weapons destruction plan, two officials said.

Faced with the threat of a US military intervention, Syrian President Bashar al Assad agreed last month to a US-Russian plan to destroy his sizeable chemical weapons programme by the middle of 2014.

Initial talks between Washington and Moscow about where to destroy the stockpile included shipping it abroad, but it is illegal for most countries to import chemical weapons, making on-site destruction more likely.

Syria and the OPCW must make a decision on what technology will be used by November 15.

"Our people's initial response was that it looks encouraging. It looks ideal," said a source in the OPCW who attended the briefing. "But we don't know how it will perform in the field and we would like to know the response from Syria and other countries with similar technology."

The source said two of the units have been produced and several more are under production.

It will largely depend on how Syria's suspected 1,000 tonnes of sarin, mustard and XV nerve agents are stored. The unit can destroy bulk chemicals, or precursors, but not munitions with a toxic payload. Separating these is more dangerous and time-consuming than incinerating or neutralising precursor chemicals.

"This is very big business, very political, and several governments are pushing for it," said chemical weapons expert Dieter Rothbacher, who used to train inspectors at the OPCW.

"These units will be operating in Syria for a long period of time."

Several countries have already been contacted to provide technicians for trials with the US-made unit, which finished a trial stage in August after half a year of development, said a source who asked not to be named. It is known as the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS).

The officials did not provide financial details, but Mr Rothbacher, who helped destroy late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's stockpile, estimated that the unit would "easily cost hundreds of million of dollars".