BEIRUT, Lebanon — 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 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 government-held 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 United Nations and the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Kaag said the ship would remain at sea until a second cargo of chemicals reaches Latakia, when it will return to load them.
Security for the highly toxic cargo is being provided by warships from Russia, China, Denmark and Norway.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon welcomed the progress.
The chemicals removed Tuesday will eventually be transferred to a U.S. ship, the Cape Ray, which has been fitted with special machinery. Once aboard the American vessel, the materials will be placed in a titanium reactor that uses heated water and other chemicals to render the weapons inert.
The use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21 killed hundreds of people, according to the U.S. government. The United States and Russia — a staunch ally of Syria — later reached agreement to eliminate the Assad regime's chemical weapons by mid 2014 in a deal that averted U.S. military strikes against Syria.