ABOARD THE ARK FUTURA EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN (Reuters) - Denmark, providing one of two container vessels taking delivery of Syrian chemical weapons for destruction, urged Damascus on Tuesday to expedite the process and said it could not wait beyond a June 30 deadline.
Syria missed several interim deadlines for relinquishing its toxic stockpile, although most of the declared amount has now been removed or destroyed, and Western officials are concerned about discrepancies and ambiguities in Syria's inventory declaration that could leave some of its arsenal intact.
Damascus's poison gas programme was to be completely eliminated by June 30 but that deadline is unlikely to be met, diplomats say, partly because it will take at least two months for a U.S. ship to destroy the chemical agents at sea.
Two cargo ships - from Denmark and Norway - from a Nordic maritime force remain in the eastern Mediterranean taking incremental deliveries of Syrian toxins.
Journalists were given access to the ships on Tuesday, a first since Damascus started handing over its chemical agents in January. The two vessels, the Ark Futura and the Taico, are anchored southeast of Cyprus in international waters.
"It is the ambition of Denmark, of the world community that we will be able to meet the deadline," Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard told Reuters Television aboard the Ark Futura, a vessel whose latest cargo consisted of 110 containers of mustard gas and precursor chemicals for sarin and VX nerve gas.
"We have mandated our ships to stay here until the 30th of June, but we haven’t mandated them any longer and that is why we urge the Syrian government to move now; we can't stay here forever, and we cannot keep on waiting forever," he said.
The Ark Futura is handling so-called Priority 1 agents which, when prepared, produce deadly toxins. Three of the 110 containers already contain ready-made mustard gas, 80 precursors of sarin and the remainder precursors to VX.
Under threat of U.S. air strikes, the Syrian government agreed with the United States and Russia in September to dispose of a chemical arsenal - which Damascus had never formally acknowledged - after hundreds of people were killed in an August attack with the nerve agent sarin on the outskirts of Damascus.
But on the Ark Futura there was little to betray the deadly cargo in the containers other than black-and-white "toxic" signs, and, on closer examination, barcoded seals of the watchdog Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and stickers of the Syrian government.
Danish chemical experts on board the Ark Futura said the chemicals were under safe supervision.
"Our daily routine is looking at these containers several times making sure nothing happens, that everything is safe for the ship and military crew on board," said Pers Andersen, a Danish military warrant officer.
Andersen said the mission anticipated another five containers - four holding precursors for sarin and one a precursor for VX. Another 11 containers were expected on the Taico, which was taking in less dangerous agents.
Just over 92 percent of chemicals have been handed over to a joint task force of the United Nations and the OPCW.
But reported chlorine gas attacks in the civil war last month, if proven, could prove a major weakness in the chemical deal since chlorine was never included in Syria's inventory list submitted to the OPCW.
(Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by Mark Heinrich)