MOSCOW -- Syria plans to send a large shipment of toxic agents out of the country this month and can complete the removal process by March 1, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov was quoted as saying on Tuesday.
“Literally yesterday the Syrians announced that the removal of a large shipment of chemical substances is planned in February. They are ready to complete this process by March 1,” state-run Russia news agency RIA quoted Gatilov as saying.
The operation to dispose of Syria's chemical stockpile under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States is far behind schedule and a deadline for sending all toxic agents out of Syria this week will be missed.
U.S. officials accused Damascus of dragging its feet, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last Friday to put pressure on Assad's government to accelerate the operation.
CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reported that so far, only 4 percent of the priority 1 chemicals, which include deadly agents like sarin gas, declared by Syria have been removed, according to U.S. government estimates.
U.S. officials said the Assad regime had not even begun to transport the remaining Priority 1 chemicals to the designated Mediterranean port at Latakia for collection.
U.S. Ambassador Robert Mikulak also said that Syria had not fully destroyed its chemical weapons production facilities as required, and claimed by the regime. Brennan said U.S. officials believe many of the measures that the Syrians have taken are actually readily reversible and do not meet requirements.
Russia, the government's most powerful backer during a nearly three-year-old civil conflict in Syria, has said Western concerns are overblown and rejected accusations that the delays are deliberate, citing security and logistical issues.
“As for timing, in principle everything is going OK,” Ryabkov was quoted as saying. “There really are difficulties linked to the need to provide security for this operation.”
Michael Luhan, spokesman for the international organization tasked with overseeing the removal and destruction of Syria's toxic chemical stockpile, told CBS News on Tuesday that he could not confirm the March 1 deadline given by Russia.
The spokesman for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said the group's Executive Council concluded last week that the Syrians need to submit a revised timetable for the process.
He said the OPCW would vet that timetable and assess its feasibility -- a process which had not been completed on Tuesday. Luhan told CBS News it was possible the Syrians had submitted the March 1 date for consideration, but stressed the new timetable had not yet been adopted by the OPCW.