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Nearly half of Syrian chemicals removed

Syrian authorities blame security problems for the delays in reaching the agreed deadline.

The cargo vessel Taiko that will be loaded with Syria’s chemical agents at the Syrian port of Latakia before their transfer out of the country for destruction. Picture: AFP.

BEIRUT - Nearly half of Syria's declared chemical weapons have been shipped out of the country after two more cargoes were loaded onto vessels in the Mediterranean over the last week, the international team overseeing the disarmament process said.

The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a statement late on Wednesday that 45.6 percent of the chemicals had been removed from Syria's Latakia port for destruction outside the country.

Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons program last year in a deal with Russia and the United States, but it is several months behind schedule and risks missing a June 30 deadline for the chemicals to be destroyed.

It has asked to be given until 27 April to complete the removal of the chemicals, which would put the mission two-and-a-half months behind schedule.

Syrian authorities, battling a three-year uprising and insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad, blame security problems for the delays in bringing the chemicals to the Mediterranean port Latakia.

Five rockets were fired towards the Latakia port area earlier this month, with one landing near to where the international chemical teams were staying, sources said on Tuesday.

The joint UN-OPCW mission said the delivery of the latest two consignments to vessels off Latakia means that 29.5 percent of the 'Priority 1' chemicals, considered the most dangerous, have been removed and 82.6 percent of 'Priority 2' chemicals.

Meanwhile, Syria and its Russian ally on Wednesday criticised the decision by the United States to suspend the operations of Syria's embassy in Washington and consulates in other cities.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry condemned the action as a violation of international diplomatic conventions in a statement carried by Syrian state television.

Moscow called it "worrying and disappointing".

Worsening relations between the United States and Russia over Ukraine have clouded efforts by the two countries to broker a peace deal in Syria, which is in its fourth year of civil war.

The Russian Foreign Ministry suggested Washington's actions were aimed at "regime change" to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whom Russia has protected with diplomatic support at the UN Security Council and with arms deals.

"The aim of regime change in Damascus prevails over the task of disarming Syria of its chemical weapons and helping millions of Syrians who have suffered from the armed conflict," the ministry said on its website.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry said: "The United States of America committed a clear violation of the Vienna conventions on diplomatic relations and consular relations by resorting to an arbitrary measure."