By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria could ship out its remaining chemical weapons within a month and still meet a mid-year target for their final destruction, the head of an international mission overseeing the delayed disarmament operation said on Friday.
After missing several deadlines, Syria has accelerated the pace of chemical shipments from its Mediterranean port of Latakia this month and has now removed or destroyed more than half of its declared chemical arsenal.
Syrian authorities have proposed a new target to complete the removal of the chemicals by late April, 10 weeks behind the original schedule, although Western diplomats say they are reluctant to grant Damascus more time for the work.
Sigrid Kaag, head of the joint mission of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said that Syria - which is embroiled in civil war - was making progress and its revised timetable was achievable.
"We think the current plan is realistic and workable," she told Reuters in an interview in Beirut. "However we have always been very clear in stating that the month of March remains very critical in order to attain the overall timetable."
She said the June 30 target for the destruction of the chemicals at sea was also realistic, especially if the current acceleration in consignments continued. "We don't exclude a further speeding up of the current pace."
President Bashar al-Assad, battling a three-year uprising against his rule, agreed to dispose of Syria's chemical weapons after August chemical attacks in Ghouta and Mouadamiya suburbs around the Syrian capital last August.
Washington and its Western allies blamed Assad's forces for the world's worst chemical attack in a quarter-century, and nearly carried out air strikes in response. Damascus said anti-Assad rebels were responsible.
Despite the delays, Kaag said Syrian authorities had displayed constructive cooperation "from the outset until now".
One third of Syria's most dangerous chemical weapons, including its entire stock of mustard gas, has already been transported to ships off its Mediterranean port of Latakia.
Mustard gas is the most dangerous to transport because it is stored in the same form that is deployed in warfare. Components of other binary agents such as sarin are kept separately and only mixed when they are loaded into weapons, making them safer to store and move around.
But the operation remains fraught with danger.
Last month Syria said there were two attempted attacks on convoys transporting chemical weapons, and two storage sites remain inaccessible due to the civil war which has killed 140,000 people and ravaged whole districts of Syrian cities.
Kaag said she could not say whether chemical sites had come under deliberate attack or were simply caught up by chance in the conflict which has affected every part of the country.
"What we know is that there is a heightened risk of any accident or incident," she said. "I've just come out of Latakia...and an hour after we'd arrived two rockets arrived on the same road I have taken. And there were civilian casualties."
Earlier this month five rockets were fired towards Latakia, one of them crashing close to a hotel where the UN-OPCW experts were staying. Elsewhere in Syria, two chemical sites are currently inaccessible because of the fighting.
Nearly a week after a March 15 target for destruction of the 26 chemical production facilities across the country, nearly half have yet to be eliminated. Sources at the OPCW headquarters in the Netherlands said this week they included aircraft hangars and underground facilities.
Haag said OPCW member states wanted to see the remaining sites destroyed and a technical team was working with Syrian authorities on a plan to be presented next week to the OPCW members for endorsement.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)