Syria shipped out a fourth consignment of chemical weapons for destruction Wednesday but the international watchdog urged swifter progress towards a missed turn-of-the-year deadline to surrender the most dangerous agents.
The mustard gas loaded onto a cargo ship in the Mediterranean port of Latakia was one of five "priority chemicals" in Syria’s arsenal which it was supposed to have handed over by December 31 under a disarmament deal approved by the UN Security Council last August.
The feared weapon, made notorious by its use during World War I, is to be destroyed at sea aboard a US vessel, the MV Cape Ray, under the supervision of the UN and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
Like the last shipment of chemical weapons on February 10, the OPCW gave no details on the volume of mustard gas handed over for destruction.
"The removal of this sulphur mustard is an encouraging and positive development," said the watchdog's chief Ahmet Uzumcu.
"Much work nonetheless remains to be done, and we look to the Syrian government to accelerate its efforts to transfer the remaining chemicals in regular, predictable and systematic movements."
Syria has missed a string of deadlines in a tight disarmament timetable aimed at eliminating its entire chemical arsenal by June 30 and diplomats openly admit that the final target date is no longer achievable.
But the major diplomatic players in the three-year-old conflict are deeply divided over what to do about it.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
Syrian government allies China, Iran and Russia want flexibility over the timetable, but the United States and the European Union have insisted on being strict.
Syria has declared around 700 tonnes of most-dangerous chemicals, 500 tonnes of less-dangerous precursor chemicals and around 122 tonnes of isopropanol -- which can be used to make sarin nerve gas.
The first were supposed to have been removed by December 31, the second by February 5 and the third by a -- now unachievable -- March 1 deadline.
The Syrian government insists that it has been doing its best to deliver the chemical weapons in the midst of a raging civil war and has asked for a 100-day extension to an end of May deadline for it to ship out the totality of its chemical arms.
But its Western detractors have accused it of stalling.
"The Syrian government continues to put its energy into excuses, instead of actions," the US representative in the OPCW, Robert Mikulak, charged on Friday.
The watchdog's executive council is to meet again early next month in a bid to agree a response to the slippage in the timetable.
Damascus signed on to the deal to avert the threat of US military strikes following deadly chemical attacks outside Damascus last August that the West blamed on President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The plan calls for the chemicals to be taken from Syria's main port Latakia under Western escort to a US vessel which will break them down using hydrolysis, a process expected to take 90 days.