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Ships halt Syrian chemical weapons mission ahead of deadline

Naval teams on their way to remove chemical weaponry toxins from Syria have turned back, with the likelihood of an end-of-year deadline being met appearing increasingly unlikely. Ships changed course for Cyprus for now.

Norwegian and Danish ships deployed to carry a cargo of chemical weapons from Syria changed course on Monday, heading instead for Cyprus.

The two container vessels, along with warship escorts, had been deployed to carry the toxic cargo on its way to destruction under international supervision.

A BBC journalist aboard one of the Norwegian vessels said an immediate return to Syria had not been ruled out, if there were last-minute progress. However, the crew were said to be primarily preparing for a refuelling stop in the Cypriot port of Limassol ahead of a likely return to Syria "in a few days."

Norwegian spokesman Lars Hoytun said from the frigate NHoMS Helge Ingstad that there had still been no official change of plan. "We are still on high alert to go into Syria. We still don't know exactly when the orders will come." Hovtun gave no new date for the planned shipment.

Uncertainty about delivery

Poor weather and shifting battlefronts between government and rebel troops in Syria's civil war have delayed the delivery of essential supplies for removal, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Saturday.

As a result the organization said it was unlikely that the December 31 deadline would be met.

The December 31 deadline concerned the "most critical" chemicals, including mustard nerve agent. The chemicals were to be taken by ship from the northern port of Latakia to be safely destroyed abroad.

A Russian diplomat on Friday said the deadline would be missed because chemicals such as likely precursors to make sarin, VX gas and other agents could not be guaranteed safe passage to Latakia. Russia has airlifted 75 armored vehicles to the country to assist in the movement effort.

rc /tj (AFP, AP)