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US slams Syria over missed chemical arms deadlines

Angered over a missed deadline in Syria’s pledge to export its chemical weapons, the United States criticized the government of President Bashar Assad on Thursday, accusing him of stalling their removal and — in a new complaint — weakening the country’s promise to destroy the 12 facilities that produced them.

The criticisms, expressed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the US ambassador to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a group based in The Hague that is helping to oversee the elimination of the Syrian arsenal, contrasted with the diplomatic decorum that had prevailed since the operation began more than three months ago. Until January, after the first deadline was missed, the Syrian government had been widely praised for its cooperation.

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The criticisms by the US ambassador, Robert P. Mikulak, in a statement presented at the organization’s executive council meeting at The Hague, were particularly blunt and specific. They were posted on the State Department’s website, another message that the United States wanted its criticism known outside the executive council’s chambers.

Mikulak said that, since the executive council’s last meeting Jan. 8, “the effort to remove chemical agent and key precursor chemicals from Syria has seriously languished and stalled.”

He said that only about 4 percent of the roughly 1,200 tons of chemicals, half of them especially dangerous, had been exported from the Syrian port of Latakia — the first public disclosure of how much remains in the country.

Under Syria’s pledge to renounce the weapons, the most dangerous chemicals were supposed to be exported for eventual destruction at sea Dec. 31, but the first shipment was not exported from Latakia until Jan. 7. The entire stockpile is supposed to be exported by Feb. 6, a deadline that many nonproliferation experts anticipate will be violated.

Mikulak said Syrian demands for additional equipment needed to transport the chemicals “are without merit, and display a ‘bargaining mentality’ rather than a security mentality.”

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He also expressed US objections to a Syrian proposal that the seven hardened aircraft hangars and five underground structures used for producing the deadly chemicals inside Syria remain “inactivated” rather than be destroyed, as specified in Syria’s original pledge. “These proposed measures are readily reversible within days,” he said.

Earlier Thursday, Hagel had expressed the Obama administration’s frustration with the Syrian government over the chemical weapons issue. He spoke in Warsaw, Poland, after a meeting with the Polish defense minister, Tomasz Siemoniak.

“The United States is concerned that the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons and precursor materials on time, and with the schedule that was agreed to,” Hagel said.

He also said he had spoken to his Russian counterpart, Sergei K. Shoigu, by telephone Wednesday, and asked him to use Moscow’s influence with Assad’s government to speed up compliance.

Assad said in an interview with Agence France-Presse last week that he partly blamed the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for what Assad called its slow response to Syrian requests for equipment to safely transport the chemicals. The organization declined to comment on Assad’s criticism, but nonproliferation experts and diplomats have said privately that Syria had been supplied with everything it needs.

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