ROME – The southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro will be the site for the transfer to a U.S. ship of chemical weapons materials from Syria, Italy's transport minister told a parliamentary commission on Thursday.
The first load of materials for poison gas and nerve agents currently are aboard a Danish ship, and Italy has agreed to serve as the transfer port to the U.S. cargo vessel Cape Ray for eventual destruction at sea -- all part of international efforts to rid Syria of chemical weapons.
Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said a total of 60 containers of the material will be transferred ship-to-ship at the port in Calabria, near the toe of the Italian boot, `'following international standards and in absolute secure conditions. None would be brought to shore, he said.
The materials fall within a class that are transported every day in Italy, said the minister.
Still, the mayor of the town of Gioia Tauro has said he would fight the plan.
Mayor Renato Bellofiore told the news agency ANSA that he wasn't consulted about the decision and noted that the town does not have a hospital prepared to deal with any related incidents.
`'If something happens, the people will come and get me with a pitchfork," Bellofiore was quoted as saying.
Security "challenges" in Syria have slowed the transport of raw materials for poison gas and nerve agents to a port there for transport and eventual destruction, but the process should improve in the coming weeks, the head of the global chemical weapons watchdog said Thursday.
The head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Ahmet Uzumcu, said he is still confident that Syria's chemical weapons will be destroyed as scheduled by the end of June.
"We will do our best" to meet the deadline, he said.
In a briefing with reporters, Uzumcu said the OPCW met with Syrian officials in The Hague, Netherlands, on Wednesday to discuss the delays. He said additional measures are being taken, and "we hope we can move relatively quickly in the coming weeks."
He said the Syrians need transport trucks, armored vehicles, water tanks and other logistical equipment.
The chemicals were supposed to have been removed from Syria by Dec. 31, but poor security, bad weather and other factors meant the deadline was missed. The first batch was loaded onto a Danish ship on Jan. 7.
Uzumcu said he expects an announcement about a subsequent loading could come as early next week, but he declined to give any specific date.
Uzumcu was in Rome for the announcement of the Italian port where the Danish and Norwegian transport ships will transfer the weapons onto the U.S. cargo vessel.
The confirmed use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21, in which the U.S. government said 1,400 people died, prompted a U.S.-Russian agreement to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014.
Uzumcu said the OPCW has received no evidence that chemical weapons have fallen into the hands of rebels or other opposition groups.
He confirmed the Syrians have reported there have been strikes on two chemical weapons depots in the past two weeks, but that the OPCW has no independent confirmation. He said there are no indications that any convoys bringing the chemicals to the Syrian port of Latakia were targeted.