NICOSIA Four Norwegian and Danish vessels, which are due to ship hundreds of tonnes of deadly chemicals out of Syria, headed for international waters off the Syrian coast on Friday, a Norwegian military spokesman said.
The operation has missed its December 31 target date but, Lars Magne Hovtun said, the ships have now left the Cypriot port of Limassol, about 160 miles west of Latakia port where they are due to collect their chemical cargo.
"The four ships have now set a course toward a holding area in international water outside Syria, so we are most ready to enter the port of Latakia when the order arrives," he said.
The original deadline was missed because of poor weather, logistical delays and the conflict inside Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's forces have fought to clear rebels from roads along which the chemicals will be transported.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is overseeing the removal of the chemicals along with Syrian authorities and the United Nations, has not said exactly when the chemicals will be ready to ship from Latakia.
"In any operation of this kind one does not state the day of execution but we are comfortable in the knowledge that all the work is about to be completed," the Special Coordinator of the OPCW-UN Joint Mission, Sigrid Kaag, told Reuters this week.
"This is a very complex management exercise - over and above the fact that it is a chemical weapons program that has to be destroyed at a time that a country is at war," he said.
Syria agreed to abandon its chemical weapons under a deal proposed by Russia and hashed out with the United States, after an August 21 sarin gas attack that Western nations blamed on Assad's government. Syrian authorities deny they used chemical weapons, blaming rebels for that and other attacks.
Once they have removed the chemicals from Latakia, the Nordic vessels will be escorted by Russian and Chinese ships to an Italian port where the cargo will be loaded onto a U.S.-owned ship adapted to destroy the chemicals.
The U.S. vessel, the Cape Ray, is due to leave the United States for the Mediterranean in about two weeks.
(Reporting by Michele Kambas; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Louise Ireland)