Italy seeks to calm fears over Syrian chemical weapons transfer

ROME Tue Jan 21, 2014 12:28pm EST

The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System used to destroy and neutralize chemical weapons is watched by U.S. Navy Commander Bill Speaks as it sits aboard the MV Cape Ray before its deployment from the NASSC0-Earl Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia, January 2, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing

The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System used to destroy and neutralize chemical weapons is watched by U.S. Navy Commander Bill Speaks as it sits aboard the MV Cape Ray before its deployment from the NASSC0-Earl Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia, January 2, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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ROME (Reuters) - The Italian government on Tuesday rejected what it called unjustified alarmism over plans to handle nerve agent components from Syria's chemical weapons arsenal at a port in the Calabria region.

The move, part of an international agreement to eradicate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's stocks of chemical agents, has met stiff opposition from local politicians and protests by residents concerned about environmental and health risks.

Some of the most dangerous chemicals from Syria - including components for making Sarin and VX nerve agent, known as priority A chemicals - are due to be transferred at the port of Gioia Tauro in southern Italy next month from a Danish ship onto the U.S. vessel MV Cape Ray, which has been equipped to destroy them at sea.

The government said the port routinely handled thousands of tons of toxic chemicals every year and the operation would pose no additional safety threat.

Government ministers met mayors from nearby towns and port authorities on Tuesday to reassure them and said booklets of information would be distributed to local residents "to avoid any further unjustified alarmism".

Italy said the level of toxicity of the materials to be transferred was 6.1, a category routinely processed by the port. It said 60 containers of Syrian weapons and materials weighing 560 tons would be transferred in an operation that would take between 10 and 24 hours.

In comparison, almost 30,000 tons of material of the same toxicity had been moved from ship to ship in Gioia Tauro in similar operations in 2013, the government said.

Syria has missed the December 31 deadline for transporting the most toxic substances to a port and has so far loaded only about 5 percent of the chemicals onto the Danish cargo ship, a senior western diplomat said last week.

But the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), overseeing the operation, said it remained confident that a final deadline of 30 June 2014 for the destruction of Syria's entire arsenal of chemical weapons would be met.

The international agreement was reached after a Sarin gas attack on August 21 killed hundreds of people in the outskirts of Damascus, prompting the United States to threaten military action against Assad.

(Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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