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US prepares ship to destroy Syria's chemical weapons

An Albanian soldier closes the door of a container housing 100 tonnes of newly-repackaged hazardous chemical waste at the military base of Qafe Molle near the capital Tirana on November 20, 2013
An Albanian soldier closes the door of a container housing 100 tonnes of newly-repackaged hazardous chemical waste at the military base of Qafe Molle near the capital Tirana on November 20, 2013

The US military has begun outfitting a ship with special equipment that will be used to destroy part of Syria's chemical arsenal, the Pentagon said Monday.

A hydrolysis unit is being installed on the MV Cape Ray, a 650-foot (200 meters) cargo ship, which would be employed to neutralize some of Syria's lethal chemical agents, a spokesman said.

"We are preparing the Cape Ray to be part of the destruction process if we're tasked with that mission," Colonel Steven Warren told reporters.

The ship, part of a reserve fleet used to help transport military hardware at short notice, is currently undergoing modifications at the naval port of Norfolk in Virginia, he said.

The US military had yet to receive formal orders to carry out the job but is "conducting prudent planning," he added.

The Pentagon acknowledged the preparations after the world's chemical watchdog agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said Saturday that an American ship would help destroy the most dangerous of Syria's chemical agents.

US naval ships and aircraft would likely help provide security during the destruction effort at sea, according to two defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Under an international agreement brokered to avoid US military strikes on Damascus, Syria's most dangerous chemical weapons have to be out of the country by a December 31 deadline.

Officials said the US ship would be equipped with a Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, a new mobile unit developed by the Pentagon earlier this year.

Hydrolysis involves breaking down a lethal chemical agent such as mustard gas with hot water and other compounds, which results in a sludge equivalent to industrial toxic waste.

Sigrid Kaag, the top UN official from the joint UN-OPCW mission, on Saturday confirmed the role of a US ship to dilute the chemical agents and said the resulting byproducts would be destroyed by private firms.

"The chemical effluents, what is left when destroyed, will be treated in countries through a number of companies," she told reporters in Damascus.

The US vessel "will not be in Syrian territorial waters," she added.

The OPCW has turned to the US military for assistance after no country volunteered to destroy the chemical weapons on its soil, despite an international consensus that the weapons be neutralized outside of Syria.

Destroying the chemical agents at sea offers political and practical advantages, as no government has to face domestic criticism for allowing the hazardous work inside its borders, experts said.

"The ship-based option can be done relatively quickly, more quickly than doing this on land," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the US-based Arms Control Association.

"The equipment exists, the personnel can be relatively easily assembled," he told AFP.

The mobile hydrolysis unit can be operational within 10 days after being deployed, according to the Pentagon.

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