Syria slow to export chemical materials

Delay revives concerns about meeting weapon deadlines

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GENEVA -- Syria has delivered a consignment of chemical weapons materials for export and destruction overseas for the first time in more than two weeks, a delay that has revived concerns about the country's readiness and ability to meet newly extended deadlines for completing the task this month.

The delivery, completed Friday, involved an unspecified volume of chemical agents, according to a statement by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international monitor group helping the United Nations oversee the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. However, Friday's consignment involved only a small volume of chemical agents, Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the agency, said in an interview.

Syria missed a February deadline for completing the shipment of all chemical weapons materials to be destroyed abroad and later agreed it would finish the job by April 27, so as to fulfill the agreement brokered by the United States and Russia, which calls for complete destruction of all elements of its chemical weapons program by the end of June.

A succession of deliveries in March increased the proportion of chemicals shipped out to about half the total, raising hopes that Syria could meet its April deadline. But the lapse of more than two weeks in deliveries has put that target in doubt.

Sigrid Kaag, the U.N. official who is coordinating oversight of the chemical destruction effort in Syria, briefed the Security Council on Thursday via a videoconference connection. The briefing was private, but diplomats quoted by The Associated Press said Mr. Kaag had attributed the delivery delays to poor security.

In a statement alluding to concerns about further delays, the director general of the chemical weapons organization, Ahmet Uzumcu, said: "This is the first shipment since 20 March. It is therefore important not only to follow this up with further rapid movements but also to make up for the lost time by increasing the volumes of chemicals to be removed."

Syria's performance will be under scrutiny by the organization's executive council meeting next week when member states also expect Syria to explain what action it proposes to take in relation to its chemical weapons production facilities, including a number of underground bunkers. Syria wanted to seal them, but Western governments have objected, asserting that under the global treaty that bans chemical weapons, which Syria has signed, the facilities must be destroyed.

Meanwhile, the head of a United Nations agency with responsibility for disarming mines and discarded munitions warned Friday that these weapons will plague civilians and humanitarian aid groups for years after the fighting in Syria ends.

"Remember," Agnes Marcaillou, the head of the U.N. Mine Action Service, said in an interview, "millions of refugees and displaced people must walk back on contaminated roads, and humanitarian helicopters will have to be used to deliver food aid if the roads are not cleared."

The U.N. mine agency, relying on news accounts for its information, has been plotting on a map all reported incidents where Syrian government and rebel forces have fought. The result is a "clash database," which will be used to search for unexploded ordnance if a peace arrangement is ever negotiated.

"We have right now recorded 37,000 such clashes," she said.

"We must put mine action on the Syrian solution agenda," Ms. Marcaillou said, adding that her agency already has drawn up plans for working in Syria and that those plans had been given to Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. peace envoy to Syria and the moderator earlier this year of failed talks between the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its opponents.

How to deal with what's left behind on the battlefield when a conflict ends has been a problem of all wars. The U.N. mine agency estimates that about 10 times every day someone in the world is killed or maimed by a landmine or other unexploded ordnance. Friday was the U.N.'s day for mine awareness.

McClatchy Newspapers contributed.


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