THE HAGUE/TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania rejected on Friday a U.S. request to host the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, dealing a blow to a U.S.-Russian accord to eliminate the nerve agents from the country's protracted civil war.
Negotiations went down to the wire as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague hit the deadline on Friday for a step-by-step plan to get rid of 1,300 tonnes of Syria's sarin, mustard and other agents.
After the Albanian decision, the Nobel Peace prize winning body adopted a plan on Friday night that set out deadlines in the destruction process but did not name a host country or detail security arrangements.
Albania's refusal marked an unprecedented break from its traditionally staunch allegiance to NATO ally Washington and may make it hard to meet destruction deadlines.
It followed a storm of protest in the Adriatic republic, where protesters complained of exploitation.
"It is impossible for Albania to get involved in this operation," Prime Minister Edi Rama, just two months in the job, said in a televised address to the nation.
"We lack the necessary capacities to get involved in this operation," he said, following days of growing protests outside government buildings.
Hundreds of demonstrators, including students cutting school classes, gathered to denounce the plan on Friday, "NO" painted on their faces.
There was no immediate indication where the United States or Russia might look next to dispose of thousands of tonnes of toxic waste. One source briefed on the discussions said Washington had bet on Albanian cooperation.
Faced with the threat of U.S. missile strikes, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September agreed to destroy the entire chemical weapons stockpile following a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of people in Damascus on August 21.
Washington said only Assad's forces could have carried out the attack, a charge the Syrian leader denied.
The plan adopted by the OPCW on Friday called for the "most critical" chemicals to be transported out of Syria by 31 December 2013, with the removal of all declared chemical substances and precursors, except for isopropanol, one of two key ingredients for sarin, no later than 5 February 2014.
Syria's chemical weapons facilities will be gradually destroyed between December 15 2013 and March 15 2014, while the destruction of the priority chemical weapons will be completed outside Syria by 31 March 2014. All other declared chemical materials will be eliminated by 30 June 2014.
"The plan provides a clear roadmap. It sets ambitious milestones to be met by the government," OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said in a statement. "This next phase will be the most challenging and its timely execution will require the existence of a secure environment for the verification and transport of chemical weapons."
"Continuing international support and assistance for this endeavor will remain crucial," he said.
Saying it respected Albania's decision, the United States said the deadlines could still be met.
"The United States will continue to work with Allies and partners as well as the OPCW and the United Nations to ensure the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons program," the U.S. embassy in Tirana said in a statement.
"We remain confident that we will complete elimination of the program within the timeline agreed upon."
Still to be worked out, however, is how to safely transport the chemical weapons through contested territory to a port in northern Syria to be shipped abroad.
Once the chemicals are safely out of Syria, the pressure will be off for them to be destroyed in the short term, but diplomats are concerned they could fall be targeted by militants or stolen and sold on the black market.
The timetable is part of an ambitious disarmament pact, backed by the United Nations and which may also bring in the support of the NATO military alliance and other countries offering logistical, financial and technical assistance.
(This story was refiled after OPCW officially corrected date in the 13th paragraph)