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Pentagon plans to destroy Syrian chemical arms on ship at sea

The Pentagon plans to send about 60 civilian workers, including contractors, to the Middle East early next year to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea.

Several specialists from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is tasked with overseeing the dismantling of Syria's chemical arms program, would assist Pentagon personnel in the mission, defense officials said Thursday.

The Organization has not formally approved the use of a ship to destroy the stockpile, but defense officials said the plan will likely be chosen to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for removing from Syria "priority one" chemical weapons — sarin, mustard gas and VX nerve agent. Less toxic arms could be destroyed at commercial waste treatment facilities, officials said.

An alternate State Department plan to incinerate the weapons would not meet the deadline and likely would have to be carried out on land, defense officials said, adding that the Pentagon plan is low-risk, environmentally sound and has been planned for nearly two years.

"This is a proven technology. The chemicals and their reactions are very well understood," a senior defense official told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. "The Department of Defense has decades of experience in chemical demilitarization programs."

"Absolutely nothing will be dumped at sea," the official said.

Officials estimated that destroying about 150 containers of "hundreds of tons" of chemical agents would take 45 to 90 days. They did not provide a cost estimate, but specialists have speculated that the plan would cost as much as $70 million.

The operation would require the chemicals, currently in liquid form, to be taken to Syria's main seaport, Latakia. The chemicals then would be placed on a non-U.S. vessel and shipped to a third country, where the U.S. ship Cape May would take on the cargo and head into the Mediterranean.

Two hydrolysis systems aboard the ship will neutralize the chemicals. The systems were used to dispose of chemical agents at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland in 2006 and at a chemical depot in Indiana in 2009. This would mark the systems' first at-sea destruction.

No U.S. military personnel are planned to be on the ship, which will have about 100 people aboard. U.S. and allied officials are discussing how to secure the Cape May during the operation.

After the mission, the Cape May will be cleaned and decommissioned, defense officials said.

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