AN international maritime mission to remove chemical weapons out of Syria via Cyprus has been put on hold, with the ships returning to the island.
They docked in Limassol around noon, Cypriot authorities said.
The delay was attributed to technical reasons and amid security concerns over the transport of the chemicals within Syria itself.
Norwegian and Danish vessels had left Limassol on Saturday but turned back yesterday after the hazardous containers failed to arrive for collection in the port of Latakia, Syria.
The BBC reported that the plan now is to refuel in Limassol before returning to sea in the coming days. A BBC journalist aboard the Norwegian frigate HNoMS Helge Ingstad, reported yesterday that the ships were docked in Limassol, on the day they were supposed to be escorting Syria’s most dangerous chemicals out of the country.
Norwegian and Danish frigates are to accompany a cargo ship, the Ark Futura, onto which several tonnes of chemicals are to be loaded.
“We are still on high alert to go into Syria,” a Norwegian defence ministry spokesman told the AFP news agency. “We still don’t know exactly when the orders will come.”
In Nicosia, defence minister Fotis Fotiou confirmed the operation has been delayed.
“The ships will be staying in Cypriot waters, their crews training and preparing until they receive new orders,” Fotiou told the Mail.
The vessels arrived here earlier this month following an agreement to remove chemical agents from Syria.
The deal was brokered by the United States and Russia after rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin were fired at three towns in the Ghouta agricultural belt around Damascus on August 21, killing hundreds of people.
Western powers said only Syrian government forces could have carried out the attack, but President Bashar al-Assad blamed rebel fighters.
December 31 was set as the deadline for removing the most toxic chemicals out of Syria.
Under the international disarmament plan, US satellites and Chinese surveillance cameras are to track the progress of Russian armoured lorries as they carry the chemical weapons from 12 storage sites in Syria to Latakia, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
Danish and Norwegian cargo ships will then transport the chemicals to a port in Italy, where they will be loaded on to the US Maritime Administration vessel MV Cape Ray and taken out into international waters before being destroyed by hydrolysis.
Damascus agreed to transport the “most critical” chemicals, including around 20 tonnes of mustard nerve agent, out of the Mediterranean port of Latakia to be safely destroyed abroad away from the war zone.
The Syrian government is responsible for the safe packaging, transport along roads to Latakia – including the main highway from the capital – and removal of chemical weapons.
This month Syrian government forces took back control of the highway linking Damascus to the coast which is needed to transport the toxins. Rebels were ousted from three towns along the road but activists say convoys moving along it will remain vulnerable to rebel ambushes.
The removal of Syria’s chemical stockpile is a joint mission of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations.
The OPCW Executive Council is now scheduled to meet on January 8 to discuss the progress of the mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.