Task force gathers for Syria chemical weapons pickup

LIMASSOL, Cyprus (REUTERS) - A Danish-led task force was being readied in Cyprus on Saturday to remove the first part of Syria's deadly chemical stockpile, due before the end of this year.

Under a deal worked out between the United States and Russia, Syria will relinquish control of deadly toxins which can be used to make sarin, VX gas and other lethal agents.

Denmark and Norway plan to use two cargo vessels to transport the cargo out of the Syrian port city of Latakia, escorted by two frigates of their respective navies, and deliver it to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for destruction.

The deadliest chemicals in Syria's stockpile are due to be shipped out of the country by the end of the year under an agreement between Damascus and the OPCW, but the ongoing conflict is complicating efforts to meet that deadline.

"The timing is another matter and it is related to a lot of other uncertainties right now but we are preparing to be ready as fast as possible. " said Commodore Torben Mikkelsen of Denmark, Commander of the combined task force.

"My job right now is to prepare this task group, capable of transporting chemical agents out of the port of Latakia in Syria, to a so-far not identified destination for ongoing further destruction of these chemical agents," he told journalists in the Cypriot port of Limassol.

US defence officials said earlier this month that sea trials were planned of equipment which could neutralise the deadly chemicals on board a merchant marine ship.

The technology, known as hydrolysis, turns dangerous toxins into a low-toxicity liquid waste. Task force officials said a harbour was needed for the cargo to be transferred for its final destruction.

"I think the plan is we will be heading for a harbour where we will meet an American ship and they have a field deployable hydrolysis system on board and they will destroy them at sea,"said Bjorn Schmidt, a chemist of the Danish Emergency Management Agency who is a member of the mission.

The OPCW, was given the task of overseeing destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stocks following a sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus which killed hundreds of people last August.

The task force was bolstered by chemical experts and vessel protection teams. Schmidt said that he believed in the "worst case" scenario, about 500 tonnes of "priority 1 chemicals" - those that can make sarin and VX - would be shifted out of Syria.

"It (that size of estimate) is because we have the priority 1 chemicals which are those we want out.. But we are not aware if it is actually going to happen, if they get all the packed chemicals to the harbour, we don't know that yet," he said.

Officers said the task force would go "as many times as it takes" to remove the toxins.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.