The international operation to destroy Syrian chemical weapons entered its final phase on Wednesday, with the stockpile being loaded onto a US military ship equipped to dispose of them.
Hundreds of tonnes of mustard gas and ingredients to make Sarin nerve gas were transferred from a Danish freighter in the southern Italian port of Gioia Tauro amid tight security.
An exclusion zone was set up around the port in the Reggio Calabria region as the vessels moored stern-to-stern, and the containers were moved from one ship to the other by crane and a vast climbing platform.
"For now everything is going well. We have put in a huge amount of effort... to manage the transfer operation smoothly," Italy's Environment Minister Gian Luca Galletti said on Twitter as he watched over the delicate procedure.
The operation is being overseen by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPAC). Safety officers in the area are constantly monitoring for the possible release of dangerous toxins into the amid protests by Italian environmentalists about the "poison ship".
Officials at the scene said between six and seven containers were being loaded onto the MV Cape Ray per hour, with 62 of the 78 on board by late afternoon. Once the chemical agents have been safely transferred, they will be destroyed in international waters.
The disposal process marks the culmination of a programme to rid Syria of its chemical weapons stockpile after the outcry that followed chemical attacks by the Assad regime in the suburbs of Damascus on August 23 last year, that may have killed as many as 1,400 people.
The transfer and disposal of the weapons and materials "could open up new possibilities for disarmament and non-proliferation in the region," Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini said.
- 'The poison ship' -
But despite government assurances that the port was used to handling highly dangerous toxic substances, the procedure has sparked concern in Italy.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
Dozens of protesters gathered in the nearby town of San Ferdinando on Tuesday, worried by the risks to health involved in allowing the Danish freighter Ark Futura, which they dubbed "the poison ship", to dock.
"This is not a routine operation, it's a military operation and we are very worried," trade unionist Domenico Macri told AFP.
"We have never carried out this type of operation in Gioia Tauro before. If there's an accident, and a container breaks or falls, the substances which would come out could do serious damage," he said.
The protest group SOS Mediterraneo said destroying the weapons at sea risked having a devastating effect on Italy's pristine beaches and seaside communities, with a spokesman saying "securing such dangerous agents should be done on land, in absolutely secure conditions."
- High security -
Angelo Bonelli, leader of Italy's Green Party, also asked the government "for immediate assurances" that "residual toxins produced" during the destruction of the agents will not pollute the waters or impact the fishing industry.
The port has stepped up security for the transfer, sealing off access roads and barring entry to any non-authorised people.
Once the MV Cape Ray moves back out into international waters, the process to destroy the materials is expected to take between 45 and 90 days.
The US vessel has been equipped with two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems -- portable treatment plants capable of "neutralising" the most dangerous Syrian chemical agents.
The process should destroy more than 99 percent of the chemicals, reducing the lethal agents into a sludge similar to low-level hazardous industrial waste, which will then be disposed of by private waste treatment facilities.
Syria shipped out its stockpile of chemical weapons under the terms of a UN-backed and US-Russia brokered agreement to head off Western air strikes against the regime last year.