Syria hands over last of chemical weapons to Western powers

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Syria hands over last of chemical weapons to Western powers
Contractors work on the the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) onboard the M/V Cape Ray in the cargo bay of the ship January 2, 2014, in Portsmouth, Virginia. The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System is a transportable modular demilitarization system designed to render chemical warfare material into compounds not usable as weapons, and it will be used to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile. AFP PHOTO / Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
The M/V Cape Ray (L), where the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) is stored in the cargo bay, rests in the water with its sister ships January 2, 2014, in Portsmouth, Virginia. The FDHS is a transportable system designed to render chemical warfare material into compounds not usable as weapons, and it will be used to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile. AFP PHOTO / Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
MUNSTER, GERMANY - MARCH 05: A container that will be used to destroy chemical weapons from Syria is pictured during a press day at the GEKA facility on March 5, 2014 in Munster, Germany. GEKA is federally-funded and its sole function is the destruction of chemical weapons from military arsenals. Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons last August and disposal, which is already underway on an American ship in the Mediterranean, is scheduled to be completed by June. (Photo by Nigel Treblin/Getty Images)
MUNSTER, GERMANY - MARCH 05: Workers wear protective clothing during a press day at the GEKA facility on March 5, 2014 in Munster, Germany. GEKA is federally-funded and its sole function is the destruction of chemical weapons from military arsenals. Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons last August and disposal, which is already underway on an American ship in the Mediterranean, is scheduled to be completed by June. (Photo by Nigel Treblin/Getty Images)
MUNSTER, GERMANY - MARCH 05: A Worker in protective clothing checks the cover of a dummy grenade during a press day at the GEKA facility on March 5, 2014 in Munster, Germany. GEKA is federally-funded and its sole function is the destruction of chemical weapons from military arsenals. Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons last August and disposal, which is already underway on an American ship in the Mediterranean, is scheduled to be completed by June. (Photo by Nigel Treblin/Getty Images)
MUNSTER, GERMANY - MARCH 05: Destroyed ammunition is stored in a container during a press day at the GEKA facility on March 5, 2014 in Munster, Germany. GEKA is federally-funded and its sole function is the destruction of chemical weapons from military arsenals. Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons last August and disposal, which is already underway on an American ship in the Mediterranean, is scheduled to be completed by June. (Photo by Nigel Treblin/Getty Images)
In this photo dated Tuesday, May 13, 2014, taken from aboard the Danish warship "Esbern Snare", as in the background the containers containing Syria's dangerous chemical weapons, on the Danish cargo ship, Ark Futura, transporting the chemical weapons out of the strife-torn country, in Cyprus coastal waters. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons director general Ahmet Uzumcu said Monday, June 23, 2014, the final shipment of stockpiled chemical weapons has been loaded onto Danish and Norwegian ships for transportation out of Syria.(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this photo taken Tuesday, May 13, 2014, Danish soldiers onboard the Danish warship "Esbern Snare" as in the background the Norwegian cargo ship with containers transporting the chemical weapons out of the strife-torn country, in Cyprus coastal waters. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons director general Ahmet Uzumcu said Monday, June 23, 2014, the final shipment of stockpiled chemical weapons has been loaded onto Danish and Norwegian ships for transportation out of Syria.(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
A Danish soldier onboard the Danish warship "Esbern Snare" as in the background Danish cargo ship Ark Futura transports yria's dangerous chemical weapons out of the strife-torn country, out of Cyprus coastal city of Larnaca, on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. Denmark’s foreign minister Martin Lidegaard is urging Syria to give up the last of its chemical weapons agents in the next few days in order to meet a June 30 deadline for completely ridding the war-torn country of its lethal stockpile. A Danish-Norwegian flotilla consisting of two warships and two cargo vessels has been moving the chemicals out of Syria for eventual destruction since January. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
In this photo taken on Tuesday, May 13, 2014, the containers carrying Syria's dangerous chemical weapons, on the Danish cargo ship, Ark Futura, transporting the chemical weapons out of the strife-torn country, in Cyprus coastal waters. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons director general Ahmet Uzumcu said Monday, June 23, 2014, the final shipment of stockpiled chemical weapons has been loaded onto Danish and Norwegian ships for transportation out of Syria.(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)
Students hold a banner reading 'No to decisions taken from above, Gioia tells you Enough !' during a rally in Gioia Tauro, southern Italy, to protest against the arrival in the harbour of a ship transporting chemical weapons from Syria on January 25, 2014. The impending arrival by sea of Syrian chemical weapons has led to widespread protests in southern Italy. The toxic cargo is due to be transfered between a Danish vessel and an America ship and then destroyed at sea in international waters but they have to use a port at Gioia Tauro valley in Calabria. AFP PHOTO/MARIO TOSTI (Photo credit should read MARIO TOSTI/AFP/Getty Images)
HATAY, TURKEY - APRIL 4 : Group of Syrian people mostly women led by a female Syrian chemical engineer make gas masks with plastic bottle, wood charcoal, paper cup and cotton in Hatay, Turkey on April 4, 2014. Syrians fled to Turkey due to civil war make gas masks and send them to Syria in case of any chemical weapons attack by Assad forces . (Photo by Erdal Turkoglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
HATAY, TURKEY - APRIL 4 : Group of Syrian people mostly women led by a female Syrian chemical engineer make gas masks with plastic bottle, wood charcoal, paper cup and cotton in Hatay, Turkey on April 4, 2014. Syrians fled to Turkey due to civil war make gas masks and send them to Syria in case of any chemical weapons attack by Assad forces . (Photo by Erdal Turkoglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS - MARCH 24: The view of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, on March 24, 2014. Nuclear Security Summit will be held March 24-25, with the attenders of over 53 countries in the Hague. Security forces take extra security precautions prior to the meeting. (Photo by Mehmet Kaman/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) -- Syria finished handing over to Western powers Monday the 1,300 tons of chemical weapons it acknowledged possessing, completing a deal reached last fall under threat of U.S. airstrikes.

The most dangerous material will be transferred to an American ship, which will move into international waters and use specialized equipment to destroy the chemicals over the next two months. Other material will be disposed of at toxic waste sites in various countries.

Questions persist over whether Syrian President Bashar Assad is hiding undeclared poison gases or attacking rebels with chlorine - a toxic industrial gas that is not specifically classified as a chemical weapon.

But politicians and activists hailed Monday's milestone as a victory for international diplomacy, and, at the least, a clear reduction in the amount of chemicals available for use in Syria's bloody civil war.

The news came amid extremely high tension across the Middle East, as Israel carried out retaliatory strikes on Syria and a Syrian cabinet member warned that Sunni insurgents in Iraq have been funneling weapons to rebels in Syria.

The material handed over by Syria included mustard gas and precursors to the nerve gas sarin.

Syria agreed to surrender its arsenal when the U.S. threatened missile strikes in retaliation for a chemical attack on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. The attack is believed to have killed more than 1,000 people.

The deal was put together by the United States and Russia, which has been Assad's most powerful international backer during the war.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the watchdog agency overseeing Syria's disarmament, confirmed that the final 100 tons of chemicals had been loaded onto a Danish ship in the Syrian port of Latakia.

The completion of the task came nearly two months past the April 27 deadline set by the United Nations. The OPCW said that was because of security concerns amid the fighting.

"The last thing you want, of course, is when you're dealing with chemical weapons elimination, that chemical weapons material falls into the wrong hands," Sigrid Kaag, head of the joint U.N.-OPCW mission in Syria, said at the project's staging ground in Cyprus.

Ahmet Uzumcu, director general of the OPCW, acknowledged that Syria could still be hiding some of its arsenal.

"I can't say ... that Syria doesn't have any chemical weapons anymore," Uzumcu said.

But he said that that was true of any country that his organization works with. And he added that Syria's declared arsenal was close to estimates made by outside experts.

He described the Syrian government's overall cooperation as "satisfactory."

Kaag said her team's experts "are working closely with the Syrian Republic to look at any discrepancies or any revisions" in Syria's declaration that need to be made.

Others applauded the move.

"To its great credit, the OPCW, the United Nations, the United States, Russia and a diverse coalition of more than two dozen states stepped up to the unprecedented task of verifiably removing a country's entire chemical weapons stockpile under tight deadlines and wartime conditions," said Daryl Kimball of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

During a visit to Baghdad, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the step was significant step toward diminishing the threat of chemical warfare in the region.

But he warned that the use of chlorine gas remains a serious issue amid the three-year war in Syria that has claimed an estimated 160,000 lives.

"We are always going to remain truly appalled at the level of death and destruction that continues to consume Syria, notwithstanding the removal of these weapons," he said.

An OPCW fact-finding mission last month found evidence that chlorine gas was used in fighting between rebels and Assad's government. The OPCW stopped short of saying which side was to blame.

The use of any toxic material as a weapon is illegal under international law.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the removal of the chemicals "is further evidence that Syria adheres to its international commitments."

Louay Safi, a senior member of the rebel Syrian National Coalition, said he is skeptical Syria has declared all its chemical weapons.

"We know that even after Syria signed the chemical weapons agreement it used chlorine," he said.

Some of the handed-over chemicals will be transferred to the U.S.-owned ship MV Cape Ray, which has sophisticated machinery that will essentially use water to break down the toxic material into less dangerous substances.

Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed the reduction in arms is a net positive but said now it will become more evident that the U.S. has few good options for helping resolve Syria's complicated conflict.

"The war in Syria was never about chemical weapons. That was just one chapter of it, and it's not completely closed," he said.

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Sterling reported from Amsterdam. Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Lolita Baldor in Washington, Edith Lederer in New York, and Lara Jakes in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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