By Anthony Deutsch
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Syria has handed over the remaining 100 tonnes of toxic material it declared to the global chemical weapons watchdog, clearing the way for destruction of the stockpile at sea, sources told Reuters on Monday.
The chemicals, roughly 8 percent of a total 1,300 tonnes reported to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), had been held at a storage site which the government of President Bashar al-Assad previously said was inaccessible due to fighting with rebels.
The security situation in the area has now improved and the containers of chemicals have been taken by truck to the port of Latakia, the sources said.
"(They were) just loaded on the ship a few minutes ago," said one diplomatic source who is closely monitoring the handover process.
The chemicals will be shipped out of the Syrian port of Latakia and transferred to a U.S. cargo vessel, the Cape Ray. The process of neutralising the chemicals will take weeks and Syria will miss a June 30 deadline to completely eliminate its chemical weapons programme, officials say.
The bulk of Syria's chemical stockpile has already been shipped out of Latakia, part of a multi-million-dollar operation involving at least 10 countries.
Syria agreed last September to destroy its entire chemical weapons programme under a deal negotiated with the United States and Russia after hundreds of people were killed in a sarin gas attack in the outskirts of the capital, Damascus.
The agreement averted U.S. military strikes in response to the worst chemical weapons attack in decades, which Washington and its European allies blamed on Assad's regime. Assad blames rebels battling to oust him for the chemical attack.
Under the initial agreement, Syria had until next Monday to hand over its entire chemical stockpile and destroy all production and storage facilities in the country.
Syria has missed several deadlines set out in the agreement. As of last week, it had not yet destroyed those facilities.
It will take weeks and possibly months to neutralize and process the highly-toxic agents - including mustard gas, sarin and other highly-poisonous precursors for chemical warfare - with special equipment onboard the Cape Ray. Assad's government said it wants the U.N.-OPCW mission led by Sigrid Kaag to close once all chemicals have been shipped out of Syria.
But Western governments want the mission to continue to investigate numerous ambiguities in Syria's chemical weapons declaration and several alleged chlorine gas attacks, which they also blame on Assad's forces.
Western officials, citing U.S., French and British intelligence, have said that Assad's government failed to disclose all of its toxic chemicals and could still use chemical arms in the conflict. Last week OPCW investigators said preliminary information supported the view of Western governments that chlorine-like chemicals not declared to the OPCW have been used in Syria.
The civil war in Syria, now in its fourth year, has killed 150,000 people, displaced half the country's 22 million population and forced 2.8 million to flee.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)