UNITED NATIONS – The head of the mission charged with destroying Syria’s chemical weapons said Thursday the last 16 containers of dangerous chemical agents that need to be transported out of the country are in a contested area not far from Damascus that is currently inaccessible.
Sigrid Kaag appealed to countries with influence on armed groups fighting in Syria to help arrange unfettered access for experts to the site at a military air base and safe transport for the chemicals to the port of Latakia, where Danish and Norwegian ships are waiting to take the containers to a U.S. vessel for destruction.
Kaag spoke to reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council and said in an interview later with The Associated Press that the 16 containers – representing 8 percent of Syria’s declared stockpile – contain material to produce the deadly nerve agent sarin as well as other dangerous chemical agents.
She said it would take “less than a working week” to pack the most dangerous chemicals into five containers and the less toxic chemicals into 11 containers, put them on a convoy, and get them to Latakia.
But it’s not possible at the moment to arrange a cease-fire and get to the large military airfield by road.
Kaag said two other sites in the vicinity of the air base where chemical agents had been stored have been taken over by armed opposition groups. There are no chemicals at the two sites now, she said.
But the Syrian government moved chemicals from one of the sites to the air base, known as Site 2, as a preventive measure and now they are part of the material that cannot be moved safely, she said.
Kaag said the armed groups around the military base, which is guarded, are “the more extreme kind,” adding that “global jihad has come to Syria.”
The international effort to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons was sparked by a chemical weapons attack near Damascus last Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of people.
It was blamed on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which denied involvement.
Under an agreement brokered by the United States and Russia, the Syrian government is responsible for getting the most dangerous chemicals to the port, and destroying the rest inside the country.
The April 27 deadline has already been missed.
“Obviously the issue is that the materials leave the country as soon as possible,” Kaag said.
She said the Syrians have “indicated to us that military operations may be under way or are under way to address the situation” near the base and reopen the roads.
“From their perspective, it is something that needs to happen because it is an important route, and it’s not far from Damascus,” she said.
In the meantime, Kaag is urging Syrian authorities to fly in teams to prepare the chemicals for shipment, which includes putting them in barrels and packing them in accordance with international maritime hazardous goods standards.
This would underline Syria’s “intent to finish the job,” she said, and if the roads are opened soon it would allow the government “to stay as close to the June 30 deadline as possible” for the total elimination of its chemical weapons, she said.
Kaag, who heads a joint mission of the U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said one question raised by many Security Council members at the closed meeting was the status of the investigation it called for into reports of alleged chlorine gas use in some Syrian towns, causing deaths and injuries.
She said a delegation from the OPCW, which monitors implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, is now in Damascus on a fact-finding mission. Syria ratified the convention last year as part of the deal to eliminate its chemical weapons.
In response to a request from the OPCW, Kaag said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has authorized the U.N. to provide logistical and security assistance for the delegation.
Britain’s deputy U.N. ambassador Peter Wilson told reporters the allegations of chlorine gas use “are very serious” and “it is extremely important that the OPCW investigates those allegations.”
The government and opposition have denied using chlorine, which is not a banned chemical subject to destruction.
At the council meeting, diplomats said other issues were also raised, including whether Syria has declared all its chemical agents, its failure to destroy 12 facilities that produced chemicals, whether the June 30 deadline can realistically be met, and whether the joint mission will end its work on that date. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private.
Kaag said the joint mission is working with Syria on “discrepancies” in its declaration, and she said negotiations are taking place between Syria and the OPCW, assisted by the United States and Russia, on destruction of the 12 facilities.
Wilson said Britain believes that “until we have complete confidence that the chemical weapons have been removed from use in Syria the joint mission still has work to do.”