“Priority” chemicals were loaded onto the ship in the Syrian port of Lattakia on Tuesday, said the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the operation.
The ship will wait offshore for the arrival of more of the arsenal, which President Bashar al-Assad agreed to hand over in return for the US calling off air strikes in September. The threat of strikes was made after the chemical weapons attack on rebel-held Damascus suburbs on August 21 that is thought to have killed 1400 people.
Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal was scheduled to have been emptied by the end of last month, but the transporting of the munitions to the coast was delayed by fighting along the route. Two chemical weapons sites are on battlefields and the main road from Damascus to the coast has been insecure for several weeks.
“I encourage the Syrian government to maintain the momentum to remove the remaining priority chemicals in a safe and timely way so they can be destroyed outside Syria as soon as possible,” said Mehmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
The Danish vessel was accompanied by ships of the Norwegian and Danish navies, and by at least one Syrian vessel.
A BBC crew that had been on board a Norwegian warship to witness the loading of the munitions was ejected at the request of Syria.
The most dangerous chemicals, including sarin, the nerve gas used in the Damascus attacks, will be destroyed at sea by the US Navy.
The Syrian government has until the end of March to hand over the top-priority chemicals, including about 20t of lethal mustard gas, and until the end of June to completely shut down its chemical weapons programme.
“We are exhorting the Syrian government to intensify its efforts so we can conclude the critical part of this mission as fast as the conditions allow,” a spokesman for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Michael Luhan, said yesterday.
Syria declared 1300t of chemical weapons to the organisation, which won the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Chemical weapons were probably used in five of seven attacks investigated by UN experts in Syria, where 100000 people have been killed in a nearly three-year civil war, the UN said.
The most serious attack was on August 21, when hundreds of people died in a sarin gas strike in the outskirts of the capital, Damascus.
That attack prompted the US to threaten to use military force against Assad’s regime, which it believed was responsible.
The bulk of the chemicals will be processed on the Cape Ray, a 200m US cargo ship that is being fitted with a portable hydrolysis system to neutralise about 560t of the most deadly toxins.
The remainder will go to commercial toxic-waste processing plants.