UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The U.N. Security Council called on Syria Thursday to speed up the removal of its most harmful chemical weapons agents from the country, expressing "growing concern" at several missed deadlines.
The Syrian government missed a Dec. 31 deadline to remove the most dangerous chemicals in its stockpile from the war-torn country and Wednesday's deadline to give up its entire stockpile of chemical weapons. The Assad regime has cited security concerns and the lack of some equipment but says it remains fully committed to the process.
A council statement issued Thursday after a closed briefing by Sigrid Kaag, head of the mission charged with destroying Syria's chemical weapons, called on Syria "to expedite actions to meet its obligation to transport in a systematic and sufficiently accelerated manner all relevant chemicals" to the port of Latakia for removal.
Kaag said in an interview with The Associated Press that she told the council "Syria is at a critical juncture," it's essential that the government accelerate the removal of dangerous chemicals, and the "time for action is now."
The council noted that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the joint U.N.-Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons mission overseeing the destruction of Syria's stockpile have said the government "has sufficient material and equipment to carry out multiple ground movements to ensure the expeditious removal of chemical weapons."
Kaag told AP that Syria said it needs additional security items, namely electronic countermeasures and explosive detection devices. The mission won't provide these items because they have dual military and civilian use so Syria will only be able to get them bilaterally, she said.
The confirmed use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21 that killed hundreds of people, according to the U.S. government, led to a U.S.-Russian agreement to eliminate President Bashar Assad's chemical weapons. The deal averted U.S. military strikes against Syria.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power accused the Syrian government of "foot-dragging" and demanded that President Bashar Assad's government establish a plan to quickly move the chemical weapons and their precursors out of the country.
By delaying, she said, the Assad regime is increasing the cost to nations involved in the removal and is "also encouraging heightened risks that these weapons will be used again by regime elements or will fall into the hands of terrorists."
But Kaag told reporters she didn't think there had been deliberate stalling by Syria.
"We've seen so far constructive cooperation," she said.
She pointed to ongoing destruction of less harmful chemicals taking place in Syria, and continuing preparations for the removal of more harmful agents.
Kaag said the mission's message is clear: Syria must quickly accelerate shipments, include more material in every transport to make up for lost time, and provide predictable movements of chemicals from Latakia.
"This is an unprecedented effort in a country at war ... but it cannot be a reason for non-implementation," she told AP. "It is our assessment that a lot can be done in a fairly short amount of time, and that, I think, is what the focus should be on."
The Security Council noted the removal of "limited quantities of chemical weapons materials" on Jan. 7 and Jan. 27 from Latakia by Norwegian and Danish cargo vessels accompanied by a naval escort including ships from China, Norway, Denmark and Russia. The chemicals will be transferred to a specially fitted U.S. ship, the Cape Ray, which is expected to arrive in Rota, Spain by next week, for on board destruction.
Russia said Tuesday that Syria is planning to come up with a new timeline for eliminating its chemical weapons by the June 30 deadline.
Kaag said the U.N. and OPCW are waiting for "a more-detailed, forward-looking plan" which will "be important for the credibility of the overall endeavor and ... for all the partners, including the Security Council, to have a sense of reassurance."
"The proof of the pudding is in the eating. So the plan is a guidance tool. Continuous implementation is what really counts," she said.
Secretary-General Ban told a news conference at the Winter Olympics site in Sochi, Russia on Thursday that despite the delays he still believes the June 30 deadline for destroying Syria's entire chemical weapons program "can be done with the support of the Syrian government."
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