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Report: US to play role in offshore destruction of Syria's chemical weapon

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FILE: June 10, 2012: A Free Syrian Army solider aims his weapon at a checkpoint in the northern town of Ariha, on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria. (AP)

The United States is offering to help destroy some of the most lethal elements of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile, the international watchdog group helping lead that effort said this weekend.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Friday that the U.S. has offered to contribute money, technology and support to rid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime of its most deadly chemicals by December 31.

Ahmet Uzumcu, the group’s director-general director, said the chemicals will likely be destroyed by “hydrolysis” in the Mediterranean Sea on a U.S. Navy vessel now being modified for the process.  

Al-Assad decided to destroy the weapons earlier this year amid intense pressure from the U.S. and other world leaders, including the threat of a military strike, after compelling evidence from international inspectors showed his forces used nerve gas on hundreds of residents Aug. 21, in its roughly 3-year-long civil war.

In addition, Sigrid Kaag, the woman appointed as go-between for the United Nations and the OPCW on destroying the stockpile laid out some logistical details -- primarily that the chemicals will first be packaged and transported from multiple sites within Syria to the country's largest port, Latakia. Then they will be loaded onto ships owned by other OPCW members before a second hand-off to U.S. vessels.

The weapons and chemicals "will not be (destroyed) in Syrian territorial waters," Kaag said at a news conference in Damascus.

U.S. officials could not be reached Saturday to confirm the announcement.

The OPCW also wants nearly 800 tons of dual-use chemicals, many of which are common industrial chemicals, to be removed by Feb. 5 and later destroyed by private companies as part of the organization's ambitious plan to completely eradicate Syria's chemical weapons program by mid-2014.

Uzumcu has recently said 35 companies so far have applied for the job and are at an early stage of being vetted. He also called on governments of the 190 countries that belong to the OPCW to contribute funds to the effort, or by contracting directly with companies to help destroy chemicals. He has said they “can and must.”

Kaag, who is due to travel to The Hague by Monday, said the mission will require international contributions in terms of packaging material, other logistic needs and special equipment needed to get the job done.

She said the Dec. 31 deadline can be met, but unforeseen obstacles — such as a closure of the Homs-Damascus road — could delay the mission's job

The OPCW was given the responsibility of overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal under an agreement reached between the U.S. and Syrian ally Russia on Sept. 14. The U.S. then shelved plans for a military strike on Syria's government as punishment for a chemical weapons attack Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of people, including many children, in rebel-held Damascus suburbs. Syria's government acknowledged it possessed chemical weapons and committed to giving them up.

Since then OPCW is scrambling to meet ambitious deadlines for disarming and destroying Syria's estimated 1,300-ton arsenal, which includes mustard gas. Syria's production capacity was destroyed or rendered inoperable by the end of October, the OPCW said, and now it is tackling the tougher problem of how to deal with its existing weapons and hazardous chemicals.

An initial plan to destroy chemicals and weapons in a third country was rejected after no nation was willing to accept the hazardous waste. The possibility of destroying chemicals and weapons in Syria itself was rejected as unworkable amid the country's civil war.

In this weekend’s statement, the OPCW said a suitable US naval vessel "is undergoing modifications to support the operations and to accommodate verification activities by the OPCW."

The Associated Press reported on Thursday that the ship in question is likely the MV Cape Ray, which would destroy chemical materials using a process developed by the Pentagon but never employed in an actual operation.

Citing several officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to identify themselves, the AP reported the U.S. plans to use what it calls a mobile Field Deployable Hydrolysis System to process the chemical material, making it unusable as weapons. The system was developed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is an arm of the Pentagon. Its titanium reactor uses heated water and chemicals to neutralize hazardous materials.

According the officials, two of the hydrolysis units would be mounted on the Cape Ray under the current plan.

The OPCW's executive council met Friday night and a general meeting of member states begins Monday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.