(Changes pro-Assad to anti-Assad in fourth para)
By Anthony Deutsch
AMSTERDAM, March 18 Five rockets were fired at
the main transit point for Syria's chemical weapons this month,
with one landing near to where experts overseeing the
destruction of the toxic stockpile were staying, sources said on
One rocket in the March 9 strike on the Mediterranean port
town Latakia landed about 500 meters (yards)from the hotel used
by the joint mission of the United Nations (U.N.) and the
Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons mission
(OPCW), the sources told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based
monitoring group, said three rockets hit the city of Latakia,
killing a taxi driver and wounding six others.
The anti-Assad observatory said it was the first attack by
insurgents on the area held by Syrian government forces.
Launched from several kilometres away, four of the rockets
hit land and one fell in the sea, the sources said, citing a
confidential report on the incident. The chemical transports
were not hit.
"It was a bit too close for comfort," a U.N.-OPCW mission
official said. "It was similar to earlier incidents in
Inspectors from the OPCW were fired upon by snipers last
autumn and mortar bombs landed near their hotel in the capital,
but it was not clear if they had been targeted.
Syrian officials in The Hague did not respond to requests
for comment on the latest attack.
Syria has blamed security for delays in shipping chemicals
to Latakia, from where they are being loaded onto Scandinavian
ships. Damascus received equipment from Russia and the United
Nations, including armour for shipping containers.
Last month, Syria said there were two attempted attacks on
convoys transporting chemical weapons and two storage sites
remain inaccessible due to the civil war, which has killed more
than 140,000 people and driven millions from their homes.
Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons program last
year in a deal with Russia and the United States, but it is
several months behind schedule and risks missing a final June 30
President Bashar al-Assad's government has handed over
roughly a third of 1,300 metric tonnes of chemicals declared to
the OPCW, but has missed nearly every target date in the
By Feb. 5 it was supposed to have handed over all toxic
agents. Last week it missed a deadline to destroy a dozen
production and storage facilities.
Syria was given until June 30 to completely eliminate its
chemical weapons program, but has asked to be given until April
27, which would put the mission two-and-a-half months behind
schedule. Western diplomats have so far rejected the request,
the sources said.
"There is already a deadline, why should we agree to give
them more time?" another source involved in the discussions
said. "After all, they used these weapons on their own people."
The failure to meet deadlines could result in a report of
non-compliance to the U.N. Security Council.
Diplomats in The Hague are reluctant to take such steps for
fear of upsetting the fragile process of handing over the
chemical weapons, which included sarin, mustard sulphur and
other nerve agents.
It is also unlikely that Russia - which wields veto powers
on the U.N. Security Council and is Syria's closest political
ally - would back sanctions against Assad.
The Russian-American deal averted U.S. missile strikes
threatened by Washington after an August 21 sarin gas attack
killed hundreds of people in the outskirts of Damascus.
The last progress report issued by the joint mission said
Syria had sent six shipments, totalling about 35 percent of the
Last week, it missed a March 15 date to destroy a dozen
hangars and underground production facilities. It will also
likely not meet this month's deadline to neutralize all
chemicals overseas, the sources said.
The cost of the operation has run into the hundreds of
millions of euros (dollars). The longer it takes, the more
expensive it becomes for the international community, which is
footing the bill.
In addition to a long list of financial donors, the process
involves ships from the United States, Norway and Denmark,
Chinese and Russian security, an Italian port and commercial
destruction facilities in Britain and Germany.
(Additional reporting By Oliver Holmes in Beirut.; Editing by
Geert De Clercq and Angus MacSwan)