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Watchdog discusses Syria weapons destruction plan

Published: Friday, Nov. 15, 2013 7:33 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 2)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The tiny and impoverished Balkan nation of Albania was emerging Friday as a likely location for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was discussing a plan to destroy its estimated 1,000-metric-ton arsenal, which includes mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin. Syria says it wants the weapons destroyed outside the country and the OPCW has described that as the "most viable" option.

A meeting that started Friday morning of the OPCW's Executive Council was adjourned less than two hours later to allow national delegations to work on the wording of the plan.

Albania's prime minister, Edi Rama, said on his Facebook page that he will make public the country's response to a U.S. request for it to destroy the weapons at 1600 GMT (11 a.m. EST) — a half-hour before an OPCW meeting to endorse the destruction plan was scheduled to reconvene in The Hague.

Hundreds of youths camped overnight outside Rama's office in opposition to the plan. By Friday afternoon, their numbers had swollen to around 1,000 mainly young people, who waved banners, wore headbands with "No" written on them and chanted "No to chemical weapons."

"We don't have the infrastructure here to deal with the chemical weapons. We can't deal with our own stuff let alone Syrian weapons," said 19-year old architecture student Maria Pesha, echoing the fears of many Albanians that the impoverished country is not up to handling the task. "We have no duty to obey anyone on this, NATO or the U.S.," Pesha said.

Any destruction of Syria's weapons, wherever it happens, will be overseen by experts from the Hague-based OPCW, which won the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year for its efforts to eradicate poison gas and nerve agents around the world.

The risky disarmament operation in the midst of a raging civil war started more than a month ago with inspections and the smashing of machinery used to mix chemicals and fill empty munitions, thereby ending the regime's capability to make new weapons.

Albania, a member of NATO, is one of only three nations worldwide that has declared a chemical weapons stockpile to the OPCW and destroyed it. Nations including the United States and Russia also have declared stockpiles, but have not yet completed their destruction.

However, Albania is likely to be a controversial choice. The country of 2.8 million people descended into anarchy in 1997 following the collapse of shady investment schemes that cost many Albanians their life savings.

Also, in March 2008, an explosion at Gerdec near the capital, Tirana, killed 26 people, wounded 300 others and destroyed or damaged 5,500 houses. Investigators said it was caused by a burning cigarette in a factory where some 1,400 tons of explosives, mostly obsolete artillery shells, were stored for disposal.

The Syrian chemical disarmament mission stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus in which the United Nations determined sarin was used. Hundreds of people were killed. The U.S. and Western allies accuse Syria's government of being responsible, while Damascus blames the rebels.

The Obama administration threatened to launch punitive missile strikes against Syria, prompting frantic diplomatic efforts to forestall an attack. Those efforts concluded with September's unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons, a process that began last month.

Since then, international inspectors have visited 22 of 23 chemical weapons sites declared by Syria and have confirmed that Damascus met a Nov. 1 deadline to destroy or "render inoperable" all chemical weapon production facilities.

In a clear indication that the plan will involve transferring the chemical weapons out of Syria, Norway's Foreign Minister said Thursday his country would send a civilian cargo ship and a Navy frigate to Syria to pick up the stockpiles and carry them elsewhere for destruction.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Borge Brende described destroying Assad's arsenal as a Norwegian obligation. Fifty servicemen usually accompany a Norwegian frigate and Brende acknowledged the operation is "not risk-free."

Syria's conflict — now in its third year — has killed more than 120,000 people, according to activists, and displaced millions. It started as an uprising against Assad's rule but later turned into an armed conflict and a vicious civil war. The fighting has pitted Assad's government forces against a disunited array of rebel factions, including al-Qaida-linked extremists.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said Friday that a government airstrike the previous night in northern Syria killed a senior rebel figure and wounded two commanders and the spokesman of the Tawhid Brigade, the main rebel outfit in Aleppo province.

According to the Observatory, the chief commander of the brigade, Abdul-Qadir Saleh, was wounded while the brigade's financial officer, Abu Tayeb, was killed. The spokesman, Saleh Anadan, said later in a video released from his hospital bed, that the brigade's post took a direct hit.

Government troops have advanced in Aleppo over the past weeks, capturing strategic parts of the province, including the town of Safira, a development that secured a supply flow to government-held areas in the north.

___

Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Nebi Qena in Tirana, Albania, contributed to this report.

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