THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- The first batch of Syrian poison gas precursor chemicals was loaded onto a Danish cargo ship and taken out of the war-torn country Tuesday - a week later than initially planned, the United Nations announced.
The announcement that the raw materials had been loaded onto the ship at Syria's Latakia port marked a belated but crucial step in the international operation to rid President Bashar Assad of his declared chemical weapons program by mid-year.
The most dangerous chemicals in Syria's stockpile were supposed to have been removed from the country by Dec. 31, but poor security, bad weather and other factors meant the mission missed that deadline.
Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch diplomat coordinating the joint mission by the U.N. and Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said the chemicals were moved to Latakia from two sites in Syria and put onto the Danish ship.
"The vessel has now left the port of Latakia for international waters," Kaag said in a statement. "It will remain at sea awaiting the arrival of additional priority chemical materials at the port."
Security for the highly toxic cargo is being provided by war ships from Russia, China, Denmark and Norway.
"This is an important step commencing the transportation of these materials as part of the plan to complete their disposal outside the territory of Syria," OPCW Director-General Mehmet Uzumcu said. "I encourage the Syrian government to maintain the momentum to remove the remaining priority chemicals, in a safe and timely manner, so that they can be destroyed outside of Syria as quickly as possible."
The chemicals removed Tuesday will eventually be transferred to a U.S. ship, the Cape Ray, which has been fitted with special machinery, and destroyed on board.
"The Joint Mission encourages the Syrian Arab Republic to continue its efforts to complete the removal of chemical materials as soon as possible in a safe and timely manner," Kaag said in the statement.