Middle East

Syria chemical weapons leave Italy in US ship

The US cargo vessel MV Cape Ray leaves the Gioia Tauro port, southern Italy, 2 July 2014 Image copyright AP
Image caption The hazardous cargo will be taken far out to sea before being neutralised

A US ship carrying deadly material from Syria's chemical weapons programme has left Italy in the final phases of the destruction of the arsenal.

The naval vessel is taking the cargo, including mustard gas and components of the nerve agents VX and sarin, to international waters to be destroyed.

The materials were transferred from a Danish vessel to the US ship earlier on Wednesday, at the port of Gioia Tauro.

Syria agreed to the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile last year.

The deal - backed by the UN and brokered by the US and Russia - was struck amid the threat of US air strikes, triggered by a sarin gas attack on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus.

Security cordon

The shipment marks the closing phases in the operation to destroy Syria's toxic arsenal.

The Danish vessel, Ark Futara, docked on Wednesday morning, carrying the materials and accompanied by Italian coast guard ships and a military helicopter.

The transfer of the cargo to the US ship was completed amid tight security, with access roads to the port sealed off.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Italian coast guard ships accompanied the Danish vessel in Gioia Tauro
Image copyright Italian fire service
Image caption The Ark Futura docked next to the US vessel MV Cape Ray
Image copyright Italian fire service
Image caption The two ships were connected by a ramp as cranes began lifting containers from one to the other

Cranes were seen lifting large containers on to the US navy ship, MV Cape Ray.

The US vessel is equipped with a plant where the bulk of the chemicals can be neutralised by the process of hydrolysis.

During hydrolysis, the chemical agents are broken down with hot water and then further neutralised with sodium hydroxide - also known as caustic soda or lye.

The BBC's Rome correspondent, Alan Johnston, says this process will only begin after the American ship has steamed far out to the sea - because of its hazardous cargo.

Any remaining waste is expected to be buried on land, in purpose-built facilities.

Italy's Environment Minister, Gian Luca Galletti, said on Twitter that he was proud of his country's "contribution to international security", adding that the operation at Gioia Tauro was transparent and environmentally safe.

However, a trade unionist at the port told AFP he was concerned about the transfer. "This is not a routine operation, it's a military operation and we are very worried," Domenico Macri said.

"If there's an accident, a container breaks or falls, the substances which would come out could do serious damage," he said.

Removing Syria's chemical weapons: How the plan is unfolding

  • 1. The Syrian authorities are responsible for packing and safely transporting the chemical weapons from 12 sites across the country to the port of Latakia. Russia has supplied large-capacity and armoured lorries, while the US has sent container drums and GPS locators.
  • 2. Russia is providing security for loading operations at Latakia, for which the US has supplied loading, transportation and decontamination equipment. China has sent 10 ambulances and surveillance cameras, and Finland an emergency response team in case of accidents.
  • 3. Denmark and Norway are providing cargo ships and military escorts to take the chemicals to the container port of Gioia Tauro in Italy. Russia and China are also providing naval escorts and the first consignment of 16 tonnes left Latakia on 7 January.
  • 4. In Italy, the "most critical" chemical agents are being loaded onto the US Maritime Administration cargo ship, MV Cape Ray, to be destroyed by hydrolysis in international waters. Less-toxic chemicals will be shipped by Norwegian and Danish vessels for disposal at commercial facilities.