Italy to host Syrian weapons transfer despite local opposition

Sun Jan 12, 2014 10:03am EST

* Agreed to host handover of chemicals for destruction

* Chemical agents must be transferred from Danish to American ship

* Regional opposition growing; port to be named Thursday

By Steve Scherer

ROME, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Italy will honour a pledge to host the transfer of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal despite growing domestic opposition and this week will name the commercial port where the handover will take place, a government source said on Sunday.

The transfer of chemicals aboard a Danish vessel to a specially adapted U.S. ship, where they will be destroyed at sea, is part of an international accord engineered by Russia in the wake of a poison gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus that killed hundreds, including children, last August.

Italy agreed last month to allow the use of a port on its territory for the transit of the toxins used in making sarin, VX gas and other lethal agents, prompting vocal opposition from some areas touted by the media as possible destinations.

Foreign Minister Emma Bonino will announce the venue chosen for the exchange - expected by the end of January and to take no more than 48 hours - during testimony in parliament on Thursday, the government source told Reuters.

Later in the day, Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, will provide lawmakers with details about the procedure in separate testimony, according to parliamentary websites.

The OPCW is overseeing the destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal, and ships from Denmark, Russia, Norway and China are providing maritime security to the operation.

The mayor of the southern Italian city of Brindisi and the governor of the region of Sardinia have both said they would put up a legal and political fight if their ports were chosen for the handover.

Several criteria are being considered in selecting the port, the government source said, including "its distance from densely populated centres."

That may exclude Brindisi and the Sardinian regional capital Cagliari, whose ports are located at the heart of those cities.

Italian media have said the Sicilian port of Augusta, Gioia Tauro in Calabria, or other more isolated Sardinian ports are also being considered.

Syria's 2-1/2-year civil war has killed at least 125,835 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, and over 2 million refugees have fled, often overwhelming neighbouring countries.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer)

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