(Adds delay to opposition vote on attending talks)
* Most dangerous chemical materials being shipped out
* Syria gave up toxic arsenal in deal with Russia, U.S.
* Islamist leader calls for end to rebel infighting
* Western-backed opposition postpones vote on peace talks
By Oliver Holmes and Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Jan 7 Syria has started moving chemical
weapons materials out of the country in a crucial phase of an
internationally backed disarmament programme that has been
delayed by war and technical problems.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons
said on Tuesday that "priority chemical materials" were
transported to the port of Latakia and onto a Danish vessel
which was now sailing towards international waters.
Syria agreed to abandon its chemical weapons by June under a
deal proposed by Russia and agreed with the United States after
an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack that Western nations blamed on
President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Damascus blames rebels for
War, bad weather, bureaucracy and technical issues meant a
Dec. 31 deadline for the removal of the most deadly toxins from
Syria was missed.
The OPCW did not disclose what percentage of Syria's toxic
arsenal -- which totals 1,300 tonnes in all -- had been removed
but said nine containers of the most dangerous chemical
materials were on the Danish cargo vessel.
"The vessel has been accompanied by naval escorts provided
by Denmark and Norway, as well as the Syrian Arab Republic," a
statement said. "It will remain at sea awaiting the arrival of
additional priority chemical materials at the port."
Maritime security was being provided by Chinese, Danish,
Norwegian and Russian ships.
Government forces have taken back control of the highway
linking Damascus to the coast which is needed to transport the
toxins. Rebel were ousted from three towns along the road but
activists say convoys moving along it will remain vulnerable to
Washington welcomed the removal of chemical materials and
said Assad's government appeared to be sticking to the deal.
"Much more needs to be done," State Department spokeswoman
Jen Psaki told a news briefing, adding: "We have no reason to
believe that the regime has gone back on any aspect of their
On the battlefield, Syria's bloodiest bout of rebel
infighting since the war started nearly three years ago prompted
the head of an al Qaeda-linked rebel group to called for a
ceasefire between opposition factions.
An audio recording from the leader of the powerful Nusra
Front, known as Abu Mohammed al-Golani, laid much of the blame
for the fighting on an al Qaeda splinter group known as the
Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
While both groups have roots in the global Islamist network
and welcome foreign militants, the Nusra Front has cooperated
more with other rebel groups and has largely avoided the power
struggles that ISIL has faced since wresting control of many
opposition-held areas from other groups.
"Many rebel units have committed transgressions, just as the
mistaken policies followed by played a prominent role in
fuelling the conflict," Golani said.
ISIL has also been fighting in Iraq, where it faces an
onslaught by army tanks and artillery around the city of
Falluja, whose local leaders have urged the Qaeda-linked
militants to leave before being attacked.
ISIL gunmen want to reconquer Iraq's Anbar province in
pursuit of their goal of creating a radical Islamic state out of
the chaos of neighbouring Syria's civil war.
More than 274 people have been killed in the rebel-on-rebel
clashes in Syria since they began on Friday, according to the
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring
Golani proposed forming an Islamic legal council to resolve
feuds among the rebels and called for the militants to return to
their shared goal of fighting Assad's forces, as the campaign to
oust the Syrian leader nears the end of its third year.
It was not possible to verify the audio statement, but it
was posted on a Twitter account used by the Nusra Front.
"This unfortunate situation has pushed us to launch an
initiative to save the battlefields from being lost. This will
be done by forming an independent legal council by all the
(rebel) factions in addition to a ceasefire," Golani said.
Rebel groups, many of them also hardline Islamists, last
week launched what appeared to be a series of coordinated
strikes against ISIL in northern and eastern Syria after months
of increasing tensions with the group, which has alienated many
Syrians in rebel-held regions.
In one northwestern region of Syria alone, other rebel
groups appear to have killed 34 foreign fighters from ISIL, the
Fighting reignited between ISIL and other groups on Tuesday,
the Observatory said. Fifteen died in the town of Rastan, north
of the central city of Homs, and in Aleppo rebels took control
of a police station where about 100 ISIL fighters had been
based. The ISIL fighters surrendered themselves and their
weapons to the Nusra Front, it said.
Golani urged rebels not to become divided between foreign
and local fighters, arguing that all were needed to launch
jihad, or holy war, in the country.
The campaign to topple Assad has degenerated into a civil
war with several sectarian and ethnic struggles emerging, as
well as the internecine fighting now plaguing the rebels.
Golani urged rebels to exchange prisoners and open roads to
all opposition units.
TALKS DECISION DELAYED
Syria's Western-backed opposition in exile postponed until
next week a decision on whether to attend talks with Assad's
government aimed at ending the conflict, opposition members said
The National Coalition is facing heavy pressure from Western
powers to attend the Jan. 22 talks in Switzerland, seen as the
most serious effort yet to find a political solution to the
It has said it is ready to attend the talks in principle,
but says they must lead to Assad's departure - a demand which
Damascus has flatly rejected - and has repeatedly stalled on its
The latest delay came after at least a quarter of the
coalition called for its newly re-elected president Ahmad
al-Jarba to stand down at a meeting in Turkey and threatened to
resign if their demand was not met, sources at the meeting said.
(Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy, Alexander Dziadosz, Doina
Chiacu and Dasha Afanasieva; Editing by Giles Elgood and David