AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - 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 Tuesday.
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 kilometers 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 Damascus.”
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 armor 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 deadline.
President Bashar al-Assad’s government has handed over roughly a third of 1,300 metric tons of chemicals declared to the OPCW, but has missed nearly every target date in the agreement.
By February 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 sulfur 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, totaling about 35 percent of the total stockpile.
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.
(This version of the story was corrected to change pro-Assad to anti-Assad in the fourth paragraph)
Additional reporting By Oliver Holmes in Beirut.; Editing by Geert De Clercq and Angus MacSwan