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Syria quickens removal of its toxic weapons

Says it intends to finish the job by end of April

GENEVA — The Syrian government, which missed its original Dec. 31 deadline for shipping its most toxic chemical weapons overseas for destruction, has sped up deliveries recently and has proposed finishing the job by the end of April, according to the international group monitoring the process.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, reported the timetable Tuesday after a meeting of its executive council. It said that Syria delivered two consignments to Latakia last week, and that another shipment is expected this week. Once it arrives, the group said, Syria will have handed over more than one-third of its 1,200-ton chemical weapons arsenal and 23 percent of its Priority 1 chemical agents.

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“This is good progress,” Sigrid Kaag, the coordinator of the mission to eliminate Syria’s arsenal, said Tuesday. “I expect further acceleration and intensification of effort.”

Syria was widely criticized for falling far behind the original schedule, and not all countries who belong to the chemical weapons watchdog group are satisfied with the new timetable. “We would say it could do with further improvement,” a European diplomat said Tuesday.

Under the original agreement with Syria, brokered by the United States and Russia, all aspects of the chemical weapons program are to be decommissioned and destroyed by the end of June. To achieve that, the most toxic materials were to be shipped out of Syria by Dec. 31 and the rest by Feb. 6.

Those deadlines, endorsed by the United Nations Security Council, were the price Syria paid to avert a military strike by the United States in response to a chemical attack on a Damascus suburb last August that killed hundreds.

Syria cooperated fully with the initial stages of the program, a joint mission of the chemical-weapons watchdog group and the United Nations, and the country made its chemical weapons production facilities inoperable. But after that, Syria was slow to ship its existing weapons to Latakia. By Feb. 25, only 11 percent of its stockpile had been delivered to the port, and none of its mustard gas, the most deadly agent in its arsenal and the only one that could be put to use quickly without having to be mixed with other materials.

The director general of the watchdog group, Ahmet Uzumcu, told the executive council on Tuesday that Syria had reaffirmed its commitment to shipping the chemical weapons in a timely manner. But given the delays, “It will be important to maintain this newly created momentum.”

Syria proposes to finish shipping all the chemical weapons from 10 of its 12 storage sites by April 13. Two additional weeks will be needed for the final two sites, it says, because the areas around them are not secure.

The European diplomat said that nobody is rejecting the new proposal from Syria, but “lots of people would like them to accelerate further.”

Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the watchdog group, said Tuesday that Syria has delivered all its mustard gas. The next planned shipment will also include “a significant consignment of Priority 1 chemicals,” the agency said.

Syria has yet to address concerns about its proposals for dealing with 12 facilities that were part of its chemical weapons program, including seven aircraft hangars and five underground facilities. It has said that completely destroying them would be too expensive, and has offered to alter them instead. But the US representative to the watchdog group, Robert P. Mikulak, has said that the proposed alterations would be too easy to reverse. Luhan said the issue will be taken up by the group’s executive council this week.

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