x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Albania refuses to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons

The decision was a major blow to international efforts to destroy the arsenal by the middle of next year.

A Free Syrian Army fighter inside a damaged house in Deir Al Zor, eastern Syria. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
A Free Syrian Army fighter inside a damaged house in Deir Al Zor, eastern Syria. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

TIRANA // Albania yesterday rejected a request from the United States for the nation to host the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.

The decision was a major blow to international efforts to destroy the arsenal by the middle of next year.

The prime minister, Edi Rama, said it was “impossible for Albania to take part in this operation”.

The announcement was greeted by a loud cheer from 2,000 protesters camped outside Mr Rama’s office who opposed the plan to dismantle the weapons in the tiny, impoverished Balkan nation.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been discussing a plan to destroy Syria’s estimated 1,000-metric tonne 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 yesterday of the organisation’s executive council in The Hague was adjourned to allow national delegations to work on the wording of the plan.

The US said it respected Mr Rama’s decision and it was confident of meeting a timeframe agreed with Russia to destroy the nerve agents .

“The United States will continue to work with allies and partners as well as the OPCW and the United Nations to ensure the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons program,” said the US embassy in Tirana.

Meanwhile, outside Mr Rama’s office, hundreds of youths camped overnight to protest against the weapons proposal.

“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 Maria Pesha, 19, an architecture student, echoing the fears of many residents. “We have no duty to obey anyone on this, Nato or the US.”

Any destruction of Syria’s weapons will be overseen by experts from the OPCW.

The organisation won the Nobel Peace Prize 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. Then machinery used to mix chemicals and fill empty munitions was smashed, thereby ending the Syrian government’s capability to make new weapons.

Albania, a Nato member, 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 was a controversial choice. The nation of 2.8 million people descended into anarchy in 1997 following the collapse of shady investment schemes that cost many Albanians their life savings. Residents also looted thousands of weapons from state arms depots that year.

In March 2008, an explosion at Gerdec near the capital of 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 tonnes of explosives, mostly obsolete artillery shells, were stored for disposal.

The Syrian chemical disarmament mission stems from an August 21 attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus in which the United Nations determined that sarin was used. Hundreds of people were killed. The US 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 UN Security Council resolution endorsing the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.

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

In a clear indication the plan will involve transferring the chemical weapons out of Syria, Norway’s foreign minister said on 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.

Borge Brende said 50 servicemen usually accompany a Norwegian frigate and Mr Brende acknowledged the operation is “not risk-free”.

Just getting the chemical weapons to a Syrian port while the country is in the middle of a civil war will be a high-risk operation.

Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch diplomat running the joint United Nations-OPCW mission in Syria, told the meeting in The Hague her team is “conducting its business in an active war zone, in an extreme security situation with serious implications for the safety” of all personnel.

* Associated Press