Middle East

Syria crisis: Ships in new bid to collect chemical arms

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Media captionThe BBC's Anna Holligan looks at the safety kit on board one of the ships

Norwegian and Danish ships are due to set sail again from Cyprus in a fresh bid to collect Syria's chemical arms.

Their first attempt was aborted after Syrian officials failed to deliver the toxic chemicals to the collection point in the Syrian port of Latakia.

Bad weather, shifting battle lines, and road closures were blamed for the missed 31 December deadline.

Removing the most toxic chemicals is the first step of a deal to eliminate Syria's chemical arsenal by mid-2014.

The agreement was brokered by the US and Russia after rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin were fired at three towns in the Ghouta agricultural belt around the capital Damascus on 21 August.

Hundreds of people were killed in the attacks.

Western powers said only Syrian government forces could have carried out the assault, but President Bashar al-Assad blamed rebel fighters.

In a separate development, international medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) confirmed reports that five of its staff had been taken from their house in northern Syria, allegedly for questioning.

The group says it is doing all it can to re-establish contact with them.

Earlier unconfirmed reports posted online by activists suggested that jihadist fighters had raided an MSF-supported field hospital in Latakia province.

The reports said the militants were from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The group has increasingly been involved in confrontations with fellow rebels as well as fighting government forces.

Catalyst for peace

The Scandinavian fleet will sail from the Cypriot port of Limassol on Friday, reports the BBC's Anna Holligan, who is travelling on board the Norwegian frigate HNoMS Helge Ingstad.

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Media captionThe Cape Ray will neutralise an expected 700 tonnes of chemical weapons in two months

Our correspondent says the frigate will not enter Syrian waters until it receives the command from the UN teams in Syria.

Under the international disarmament plan, US satellites and Chinese surveillance cameras are to track the progress of Russian armoured lorries as they carry the chemical weapons from 12 storage sites in Syria to Latakia, on Syria's Mediterranean coast.

Danish and Norwegian cargo ships will then transport the chemicals to a port in Italy, where they will be loaded on to the US Maritime Administration vessel MV Cape Ray and taken out into international waters before being destroyed by hydrolysis.

The most dangerous ingredients include around 20 tonnes of the blister agent sulphur mustard.

Observers said the missed deadline on 31 December was a disappointing development for the international community.

Co-operation on the chemical weapons removal programme is seen by many of those involved as a potential catalyst for broader peace negotiations in Syria.

How the plan will unfold

  • 1. The Syrian authorities are responsible for packing and safely transporting the chemical weapons from 12 sites across the country to the port of Latakia. Russia has supplied large-capacity and armoured lorries, while the US has sent container drums and GPS locators.
  • 2. Russia will provide security for loading operations at Latakia, for which the US has supplied loading, transportation and decontamination equipment. China has sent 10 ambulances and surveillance cameras, and Finland an emergency response team in case of accidents.
  • 3. Denmark and Norway are providing cargo ships and military escorts to take the chemicals to an as yet unnamed port in Italy. Russian and China will also provide naval escorts.
  • 4. In Italy, the "most critical" chemical agents will be loaded onto the US Maritime Administration cargo ship, MV Cape Ray, to be destroyed by hydrolysis in international waters. Less-toxic chemicals will be shipped by Norwegian and Danish vessels for disposal at commercial facilities.

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