UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The demolition of a dozen remaining chemical weapons production facilities in Syria is scheduled to begin later this month while work will continue on the verification of the government’s declarations, Australia’s U.N. envoy said on Wednesday.
“There are seven hangars and five underground tunnels, which need to be destroyed,” Ambassador Gary Quinlan, president of the U.N. Security Council this month, told reporters after a closed-door briefing by Sigrid Kaag, a U.N. special adviser on Syria’s chemical weapons program.
“The destruction is scheduled to commence later this month and likely to be completed ... around the summer of next year,” he added, citing information from Kaag.
He said she also told the 15-nation council about plans to destroy a further facility which was only recently disclosed by the Syrian government. That site, which was revealed in September, was for the production of deadly ricin.
Kaag also spoke of the need to continue verifying the Syrian government’s declarations about the extent of its poison gas arsenal and production capabilities, Quinlan said. Western intelligence agencies had long suspected that Syria failed to disclose the full extent of its chemical arms program.
Damascus agreed last year to eliminate its entire chemical weapons program after a sarin attack on Aug. 21, 2013, killed hundreds of people in Ghouta, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus.
Under the agreement reached with Washington and Moscow, which averted threatened U.S. military action, the Nobel Peace-prize winning Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons oversaw the destruction of 1,300 tonnes of toxic gas chemicals that Syria declared to the Hague-based body.
Syria was supposed to have already destroyed all production, filling and storage facilities, but did not demolish the 12 cement hangars and underground bunkers or the ricin facility.
Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari told reporters the destruction of the 12 production facilities was “scheduled to start during this month, even this week.”
“They are empty, empty production facilities, empty tunnels. We are talking about technical stuff related to the so-called Syrian chemical program,” Ja’afari told reporters.
“My country and my government are fully engaged, committed towards continuing cooperating with the OPCW to solve all the remaining technical issues,” he said. “There is no chemical weapons program in Syria anymore.”
The government denies using chemical weapons and has blamed the opposition for repeated poison gas attacks in the country. Western officials have long dismissed Damascus’ accusations that rebels used chemical arms. The rebels have also denied using the banned weapons during Syria’s civil war, now in its fourth year.
Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; editing by Andrew Hay