No European Union nation candidate to destroy Syria gas

By Raf Casert

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Nov. 18 2013 1:31 p.m. MST

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle takes his place at the podium during a media conference after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. EU foreign ministers met in Brussels Monday to discuss, among other issues, Syria's poison gas stockpile. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has adopted a plan to destroy Damascus's estimated 1,300-ton arsenal, which includes mustard gas and sarin, outside Syria, but has yet to find a country willing to host the risky operation.

Virginia Mayo, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

BRUSSELS — Not a single European Union nation came forward on Monday offering to host the destruction of Syria's poison gas stockpile, with many instead calling for the arsenal to be eradicated close to Syria itself.

Belgium had been considered a strong candidate after the withdrawal of Albania, but Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said that "we have to find a way to send experts and the technology on site."

"To transport them over long distances to bring them on our soil — we do not really see how to do that, and not only in Belgium, also in other European states,"Reynders said, highlighting a reluctance found across the 28 EU nations.

"There is no member state that has come forward in saying 'OK, give us the stuff'," said Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans.

After Albania refused to take on the task Friday, Belgium — as well as France — had been considered possible candidates, if only because Belgium has a long history of destroying the gas arsenal from World War I.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has adopted a plan to destroy Damascus' estimated 1,300-ton arsenal, which includes mustard gas and sarin, outside Syria, but has yet to find a country willing to host the risky operation.

"The remaining question is actually where we will be able to find a location," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said "two alternatives" were being explored, but he didn't say what those might be.

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told The Associated Press, "We are just entering the destruction phase" and still looking for a country where Syria's chemical weapons can be destroyed.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also took his country out of the mix. "When I look at the technicality, the geographical stretch, then I think that such a discussion makes no sense," he said.

The OPCW has not released any names of countries where the weapons could be destroyed, but says it remains confident it can wipe out the entire arsenal by mid-2014. Norway has said it will send a civilian cargo ship and navy frigate to pick up the stockpile.

Timmermans said it might make sense to turn the whole issue around. "Instead of taking the chemical weapons out of Syria to the installations where they would be destroyed, one could perhaps take the installations to the chemical weapons instead," he said.

Wherever it happens, the destruction of Syria's weapons will be overseen by experts from the OPCW, which won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for its efforts to eradicate poison gas around the world.

Poison gas was first used in Belgium during World War I, and many thousands of canisters still lie buried in the farm fields straddling western Belgium and northern France. Belgium still has operational forces specialized in neutralizing the gas.

Several EU nations, including Germany and the Netherlands, called for more financial support to take care of the destruction. Total contributions to the trust fund for the destruction stand at 10.4 million euros ($14 million).

Mike Corder contributed from The Hague, Netherlands, Bradley Klapper and Wendy Benjaminson from Washington, and Edith Lederer from the U.N. in New York.

Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert

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