Syrian weapons headed for Gioia Tauro
Government promises safety as devices likely arrive within weeks16 January, 18:01
The transfer "will hopefully occur in early February.
..within the first half of the month," said Ahmet Üzümcü, the director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Üzümcü, whose UN agency has the job of destroying war-torn Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, thanked Italy for its "generous contribution" by "making one of its ports available" for the operation.
The weapons will not touch Italian soil and the safety of citizens are assured, government officials pledged. Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi told parliament that 60 containers would be moved from the Danish cargo ship to the American MV Cape Ray using special carriageways, without being unloaded and stocked on land. The American ship will subsequently destroy the chemical weapons in international waters, using a special chemical process. The OPCW has a deadline of March 31 for the first step in eliminating war-torn Syria's chemical arsenal - removing the most dangerous chemicals.
Following that, the agency plans to have all of the country's chemical weapons destroyed by the end of June.
With the transfer of weapons occurring directly between vessels and not on Italian soil, the government tried to assure the population of their safety.
But that did not calm the mayor of Gioia Tauro, Renato Bellofiore, who said on Thursday that he was worried the transfer will put his community at risk.
"If something happens, the population will come and get me with a pitchfork," he said.
The mayor added that the city does not have a hospital that would be able to handle an emergency if it arose. Premier Enrico Letta's government said allowing the transfer here is in line with Italy's commitment to international peace and security.
"This effort constitutes a practical and essential to guarantee the stability and security in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East," read a statement.
The operation is being carried out under a 2013 deal to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile in what Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino described as "the most important disarmament operation in the last 10 years". That did not placate local officials in Gioia Tauro, with Bellofiore complained that the decision was made from above and imposed onto the local population.
Bellofiore said that the matter was "extremely serious" and that "perhaps (Foreign) Minister (Emma) Bonino doesn't know what democracy is". The UN has said that more than 100,000 people have died since the Syrian conflict began, the BBC has reported. An estimated two million people have fled Syria and some 6.5 million have been displaced internally.