BEIRUT – The first batch of the most dangerous chemicals in Syria’s arsenal was loaded onto a Danish ship and taken out of the country Tuesday under tight security, an important milestone in the international operation to rid President Bashar Assad of the weapons by midyear.
The operation at Syria’s port of Latakia took place against the backdrop of a widening civil war and escalating infighting between a chaotic mix of Syrian rebel brigades and an al-Qaida-linked militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
With the rebel-on-rebel fighting now in its fifth day, the shadowy leader of another faction affiliated with al-Qaida pleaded with comrades to stop the spreading clashes, warning that it threatened to upend gains made against Syrian government forces.
The chemicals were supposed to have been removed from Syria by Dec. 31, but poor security, bad weather and other factors meant the deadline was missed.
The raw materials – precursor chemicals for poison gas – were moved to the port of Latakia from two sites in Syria and loaded onto the Danish cargo ship, which then set sail, said Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch diplomat coordinating the joint mission by the U.N. and Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.