BEIRUT: Syria has started moving chemical weapons materials out of the country in the most 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 said on Tuesday that "priority chemical materials" were transported to the port of Latakia and onto a Danish vessel which was now sailing towards international waters.
Syria agreed to abandon its chemical weapons by June under a deal proposed by Russia and agreed with the United States after an August 21 sarin gas attack that Western nations blamed on President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Damascus blames rebels for the attack.
War, bad weather, bureaucracy and technical issues meant a December 31 deadline for the removal of the most deadly toxins from Syria was missed.
The OPCW did not disclose what percentage of Syria's toxic arsenal — which totals 1,300 tonnes in all — had been removed but said 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.
Government forces have taken back control of the highway linking Damascus to the coast which is needed to transport the toxins. Rebel were ousted from three towns along the road but activists say convoys moving along it will remain vulnerable to rebel ambushes.