- Associated Press - Friday, November 15, 2013

THE HAGUE — The tiny, impoverished Balkan nation of Albania emerged Friday as a likely location where Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile could be destroyed.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was discussing a plan to destroy Syria’s estimated 1,000-metric ton arsenal, which includes mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin. Syria says it wants the weapons destroyed outside the country and the OPCW has described that as the “most viable” option.

A Friday morning meeting of the OPCW’s Executive Council in The Hague was adjourned to allow national delegations to work on the wording of the plan.

Albania’s prime minister, Edi Rama, said on his Facebook page that he will respond to a U.S. request for Albania to destroy the weapons at 1600 GMT (11 a.m. EST) — a half-hour before an OPCW meeting to endorse the destruction plan was to reconvene.

In the Albania capital of Tirana, hundreds of youths camped overnight outside Rama’s office to protest the plan. By Friday afternoon, their numbers had swollen to around 1,000. Waving banners, wearing headbands with “no” written on them, they chanted “No to chemical weapons!”

“We don’t have the infrastructure here to deal with the chemical weapons. We can’t deal with our own stuff, let alone Syrian weapons,” said 19-year-old architecture student Maria Pesha, echoing the fears of many residents. “We have no duty to obey anyone on this, NATO or the U.S.”

Any destruction of Syria’s weapons, wherever it happens, will be overseen by experts from the Hague-based OPCW, which won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for its efforts to eradicate poison gas and nerve agents around the world.

The risky disarmament operation in the midst of a raging civil war started more than a month ago with inspections. Then machinery used to mix chemicals and fill empty munitions was smashed, thereby ending the Syrian government’s capability to make new weapons.

Albania, a member of NATO, is one of only three nations worldwide that has declared a chemical weapons stockpile to the OPCW and destroyed it. Nations including the United States and Russia also have declared stockpiles, but have not yet completed their destruction.

However, Albania is likely to be a controversial choice. The nation of 2.8 million people descended into anarchy in 1997 following the collapse of shady investment schemes that cost many Albanians their life savings. Residents also looted thousands of weapons from state arms depots that year.

In March 2008, an explosion at Gerdec near the capital of Tirana killed 26 people, wounded 300 others and destroyed or damaged 5,500 houses. Investigators said it was caused by a burning cigarette in a factory where some 1,400 tons of explosives, mostly obsolete artillery shells, were stored for disposal.

The Syrian chemical disarmament mission stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus in which the United Nations determined that sarin was used. Hundreds of people were killed. The U.S. and Western allies accuse Syria’s government of being responsible, while Damascus blames the rebels.

The Obama administration threatened to launch punitive missile strikes against Syria, prompting frantic diplomatic efforts to forestall an attack. Those efforts concluded with September’s unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.

Since then, international inspectors have visited 22 of the 23 chemical weapons sites declared by Syria and have confirmed that Damascus met a Nov. 1 deadline to destroy or “render inoperable” all chemical weapon production facilities.

In a clear indication the plan will involve transferring the chemical weapons out of Syria, Norway’s foreign minister said Thursday his country would send a civilian cargo ship and a Navy frigate to Syria to pick up the stockpiles and carry them elsewhere for destruction.

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