Syria hands over first batch of chemical weapons material
A Syrian rebel tries on a gas mask in the northwestern province of Idlib (AFP)

Cargo collected by Danish ship, which will remain at sea pending arrival of more material at port city of Latakia

Syria has moved the first batch of chemical weapon materials out of the country on to a Danish commercial vessel pending destruction, it has been confirmed. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said the unspecified materials had been transported on to the ship via the northern Syrian port of Latakia. "It will remain at sea awaiting the arrival of additional priority chemical materials at the port," it added. "This movement initiates the process of transfer of chemical materials from the Syrian Arab Republic to locations outside its territory for destruction."

President Bashar al-Assad agreed to surrender Syria's chemical weapons by next June under a deal that was proposed by Russia and hammered out with the US. This followed nerve gas attacks that killed some 1,400 people in the Ghouta area near Damascus last August – the worst chemical attack since Saddam Hussein's massacre of Kurds at Halabja in 1988. Western governments blamed the Ghouta attack on Assad's forces, while Syria insists rebel fighters were responsible.

The continuing war, bad weather, bureaucratic, financial and technical issues meant that a December 31 deadline for the removal of the most deadly toxins was missed. The OPCW did not say what percentage of the "most critical" chemicals, including 20 tonnes of mustard nerve agent, had been transfered to the Danish ship.

OPCW and UN officials overseeing the delicate operation have said that the original timetable – which had envisaged a 500-tonne batch of the most dangerous chemical agents arriving in Latakia by the new year – was very ambitious. But they said the most important deadline was the end of March, by which time the first priority consignment should be destroyed.

"A first quantity of priority chemical materials was moved from two sites to the port of Latakia for verification and was then loaded onto a Danish commercial vessel today," its statement said. Maritime security was being provided by Chinese, Danish, Norwegian and Russian ships – evidence of the broad international support for the destruction plan.

By some estimates, Syria has one of the world's largest chemical weapons arsenals, though it has never declared it. It was maintained largely in response to Israel's undeclared nuclear weapons capability. The government had insisted that it would never use chemical weapons against its own people, only to repel external aggression.

Under an agreement with the UN, Damascus is responsible for the safe packaging and transport of the materials to Latakia – including on the main road from the capital, where anti-Assad rebel forces are still active.

The stockpile will be taken from Latakia to Italy and then be neutralised at sea by a specially equipped US vessel, the Cape Ray, in a hydrolysis process involving the addition of hot water and chemical reagents. That should take a maximum of 60 days. That would give the Syrian government until roughly the end of January to deliver all the material to the coast.

After the US-Russian agreement the US shelved plans for strikes against Syria as punishment for the Ghouta attack – a development that was widely seen as a turning point in Assad's favour, which allowed the war and the massive use of conventional weapons to continue.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Tuesday that at least 274 people had been killed in four days of fighting between rebels and jihadists. The pro-opposition NGO said 129 fighters from moderate and Islamist rebel groups had been killed in clashes since Friday, with 99 members of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and 46 civilians.

© Guardian News and Media 2014

[Image via Agence France-Presse]