GIOIA TAURO, Italy — The U.S. ship MV Cape Ray sailed into the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro on Tuesday to handle the unprecedented transfer and destruction of about 1,300 tons of Syrian chemical weapons.
The 648-foot (197.5-meter) U.S. government cargo ship has been fitted with two machines designed to neutralize the most toxic chemicals — including mustard gas and the raw materials for sarin nerve gas — that were removed from Syria as part of the international effort to destroy its chemical weapons.
The most dangerous chemical weapons will be transferred from the Danish vessel Ark Futura to the Cape Ray, which will move into international waters for the destruction. Other material will be taken to toxic wastes sites in various countries for disposal.
With the Cape Ray in port and the Ark Futura expected late Tuesday or early Wednesday, police closed roads around Gioia Tauro's port to create a 1-kilometer (.6 mile) exclusion zone. Local officials met to coordinate the operation.
On the eve of the ship's arrival, residents and even officials from Gioia Tauro and nearby towns voiced concerns about potential environmental contamination as a result of the transfer and also complained they hadn't been told what exactly would be taking place in their backyard.
"We live with uncertainty and resignation because for the last four months we have continued to ask for information about it but they didn't give it," said Domenico Madafferi, mayor of the nearby town of San Ferdinando.
While the disarmament process is risky from beginning to end, those in charge stress that equally hazardous chemicals are neutralized on a daily basis around the world.
Destroying chemical weapons at sea is unprecedented, but U.S. officials say the process is a proven, safe way to neutralize toxic chemicals. They say no vapor or water runoff will be released into the atmosphere or the sea as a result.
Bolted into the Cape Ray's cavernous cargo hold are two machines called Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems. They consist of mazes of tanks, tubes, cables and electronics that will mix the Syrian chemicals with heated water and a cocktail of other chemicals in a titanium reactor to render them inert.
More than 60 experts needed to operate the chemical destruction machinery, as well as security and support staff, are expected on board to oversee the process.
The operation marks the first time the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has overseen the destruction of a chemical weapon stockpile in the midst of a civil war.
Winfield reported from Rome.