Removing Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles

A crew member completes a safety drill last week aboard the Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad, which is taking part in an international effort to remove and destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles. (Lars Magne Hovtun / Norwegian Armed Forces / December 30, 2013)

BEIRUT -- The first batch of Syrian chemical weapons material has left the country, according to international officials overseeing the removal and destruction of the government’s toxic arsenal.

"A first quantity of priority chemical materials was moved from two sites to the [Syrian] port of Latakia for verification and was then loaded onto a Danish commercial vessel today," said Sigrid Kaag, special coordinator for the joint United Nations and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons mission.

The ship, accompanied by naval escorts provided by Denmark, Norway and Syria, then headed for international waters to wait for the arrival of additional material at the port, Kaag said in a statement issued Tuesday.

“This movement initiates the process of transfer of chemical materials from the Syrian Arab Republic to locations outside its territory for destruction,” she said.

Officials at OPCW headquarters in The Hague declined to provide details about the type and quantity of materials surrendered or where they came from, citing security concerns.

The Syrian government stands accused in an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack on rebel-held areas outside Damascus that reportedly killed hundreds of people and brought the United States to the brink of launching airstrikes against Syrian forces. 

President Bashar Assad’s government, which denied responsibility for the poison gas attack and blamed rebel fighters, averted the threatened strikes by agreeing to a plan brokered by Russia and the U.S. to strip Syria of its chemical weapons arsenal by mid-2014.

The most dangerous chemical materials were supposed to have been removed from Syria by the end of last year, but the deadline was missed because of ongoing clashes, inclement weather and logistical issues.

While noting the complexity of the operation and security concerns, Kaag urged Syria to “continue its efforts to complete the removal of chemical materials as soon as possible, in a safe and timely manner.”

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Bulos is a special correspondent. Staff writer Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.