Britain to incinerate over 150 tonnes of chemicals used in production of nerve agents in bid to get plan for destruction back on track
The UK will help destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile by incinerating over 150 tonnes of chemicals used in the production of deadly nerve agents such as sarin and VX gas over the next three months.
Announcing the contriution, the Foreign Office stressed that the chemicals, which will be unloaded at a British port equipped to handle such material, were “industrial-grade” compounds of the sort used in the pharmaceutical industry and will be “handled similarly to many other chemicals that are routinely manufactured, transported and destroyed in the UK”.
It said the compounds, known as B precursors, only become lethal when mixed with other agents, A precursors, which are to be shipped out of Syria separately and will be neutralised on a specially-equipped US ship.
The offer to help dispose of Bashar al-Assad’s stockpile comes as the timetable for the Syrian chemical disarmament operation is in danger of slipping. Squabbles over national contributions to the effort, bad weather and the continuing civil war in Syria have set back the effort by about two weeks. Britain’s offer is intended to get the operation back on track.
Two different B precursor chemicals, totalling 155 tonnes, will come from an initial shipment of nearly 500 tonnes of the highest priority chemical weapons material due to be loaded onto Norwegian and Danish freighters at the Syrian port of Latakia and shipped out of Syria in January.
Under an earlier plan, both Scandinavian freighters were to dock at an as yet unnamed Italian port to transfer the cargo to a US ship, the Cape Ray. The chemicals would then be neutralised at sea in hydrolysis machines on board the Cape Ray, and the by-products destroyed later.
Following the British offer, however, the plan will change. The Danish ship, the Ark Futura, will sail directly to a UK port and the chemicals will be off-loaded and transported by road to commercial incinerators. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said the company carrying out the incineration, and therefore the port to be used, had not yet been chosen from a shortlist.
The British contribution will leave the Cape Ray with less to do, and therefore make it more likely that the end-of-March deadline for destroying the high-priority chemicals will be met.
“It would divide the labour and shorten the timeline for destroying the 500 tonnes,” said Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) which is overseeing the operation.
“The international mission to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons programme is essential to ensure that Assad can never again use these horrific weapons to murder his own people,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.
“The UK, along with the US, Russia, China, Denmark, Norway and Finland will be playing its part in this mission over the coming weeks and months. As part of our contribution, we have agreed to destroy 150 tonnes of two industrial-grade chemicals from the Syrian stockpile at a commercial facility.”
The statement added: “The chemicals will be shipped to a UK port with suitable off-loading equipment before being transferred to a commercial site to be destroyed by incineration. The chemicals will be subject to industry-standard security measures. It is important to stress that these are chemicals, not chemical weapons.They do not contain explosives. The chemicals will be sealed in standard industrial containers to international standards and under the supervision of OPCW inspectors.”
Richard Guthrie, a British chemical weapons expert who runs the website CBW Events said: “This is the stuff you really want to get out of Syria … In an ideal world, you would use these chemicals for some other use, but then there would a political problem with lots of haggling over who gets money.”
Armoured Russian trucks have arrived in Syria in the past few days to transport the 500 tonnes of high-priority chemicals from 12 locations around the country to Latakia. The Syrian government is believed to estimate that the journey will take about 18 days unless it is held up by fighting along the route.
Syria’s chemical weapons production facilities have already been destroyed, and the last part of the UN-mandated disarmament operation, the destruction of lower priority chemical precursors, is due to be completed by the middle of next year.