Hektor Pustina, Associated Press
TIRANA, Albania — Albania, a small, impoverished Balkan nation that is one of the United States' staunchest supporters, on Friday firmly rejected a U.S. request for it to host the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.
The surprise refusal was a major blow to international efforts to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal by mid-2014. It left the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons without a country to host the destruction of Syria's estimated 1,000-metric ton arsenal, which includes mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin.
Syria says it wants the weapons destroyed outside the country, which has been devastated by an ongoing civil war, and the OPCW has described that as the "most viable" option.
In a televised address from the capital of Tirana, Prime Minister Edi Rama said it was "impossible for Albania to take part in this operation."
The announcement was greeted by a loud cheer from some 2,000 protesters camped outside Rama's office to show their strong opposition to the plan, fearing it would be an environmental and health hazard.
Albania had been considered the OPCW's strongest hope, as few diplomats expected the Mediterranean nation of 2.8 million people to reject what Rama said had been a direct request from the United States. A Friday morning meeting of the OPCW's Executive Council in The Hague had been adjourned to work on the wording of the plan.
NATO-member Albania is one of only three nations worldwide that have declared a chemical weapons stockpile to the OPCW and destroyed it. Nations including the U.S. and Russia also have declared stockpiles, but have not yet completed their destruction.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki told reporters the decision would not hurt U.S.-Albanian relations.
"We appreciate Albania looking seriously at hosting the destruction of chemical weapons," she said. "The international community continues to discuss the most effective and expeditious means for eliminating Syria's chemical weapons program in the safest manner possible."
Tirana has been an avid supporter of Washington since the U.S. and NATO intervened with airstrikes in 1999 to stop a crackdown by Serb forces on rebel ethnic Albanians in neighboring Kosovo.
"Without the United States, Albanians would never have been free and independent in two countries that they are today," Rama said in an apologetic speech. "Without the United States, today there would surely be no demonstrations about chemical weapons."
But the plan was unpopular at home.
"We don't have the infrastructure here to deal with the chemical weapons. We can't deal with our own stuff, let alone Syrian weapons," said 19-year-old architecture student Maria Pesha, among the protesters camped out overnight outside Rama's office. "We have no duty to obey anyone on this, NATO or the U.S."
Albania has had problems with ammunition storage in the past.
In March 2008, an explosion at an ammunition dump at Gerdec near Tirana killed 26 people, wounded 300 others and destroyed or damaged 5,500 houses. Investigators said it was caused by a burning cigarette in a factory where some 1,400 tons of explosives, mostly obsolete artillery shells, were stored for disposal.
Rama said he decided to reject the request because other countries, which he did not name, were not prepared to be a part of the operation.
"If some other countries would have moved in time to be part of this operation I would have been ready to tell you: This is our plan, here is the agreement with our partners, here is how little we will risk and how much we will gain morally as a nation and physically as a country," Rama said.
"Unfortunately this element, (as) important for me as it is for you, is today absent," he said.
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