WASHINGTON (AP) — Norway on Thursday became the first country to confirm it will send military servicemen to Syria and help the U.N. eliminate the Assad government's chemical weapons arsenal.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende said his country would dispatch a civilian cargo ship and a Navy frigate to Syrian ports to pick up the stockpiles and carry them elsewhere for destruction. In an interview with The Associated Press, Brende described destroying Assad's arsenal as a Norwegian obligation. Fifty servicemen usually accompany a Norwegian frigate and Brende acknowledged the operation is "not risk-free."
"But what is definitely not risk-free and what is a threat to human mankind is if weapons of mass destructions come in the hands of people willing or using them against their own people," Brende said in Washington, where he was to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry and senior U.S. lawmakers. "The risk has to be seen in the context of having these weapons of mass destruction there."
The U.N.'s Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons is still working out the plan for destroying Assad's stockpiles. Denmark is considering similar transport assistance and is awaiting parliamentary approval.
The multilateral coordination to rid Syria of its chemical weapons and agents was essentially a Plan B for President Barack Obama after he failed to muster sufficient domestic or international support for a punitive strike on Syrian President Bashar Assad's government after a chemical attack in the Damascus suburbs in August.
The U.S. said more than 1,400 people were killed, including at least 400 children, though some organizations cited a significantly lower death toll. Assad's government blamed rebels for the attack. The U.N. organized hoped to announce on Friday its strategy for removing the weapons by March 2014 and then destroying them. Officials have yet to confirm that they would destroy the weapons outside Syria, though they've called such an approach the "most viable option."
Syria is believed to possess around 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, including mustard gas and sarin. Its government met a Nov. 1 deadline to render inoperable all chemical weapon production facilities and machinery for mixing chemicals into poison gas and filling munitions.
Brende said details were being worked out about which Syrian ports would be used for loading the weapons onto the Norwegian cargo ship. He said the frigate would act as an escort to protect the material. He wouldn't say where the weapons would be taken for destruction.
With reports citing Albania as a possible destination, about 5,000 Albanians demonstrated Thursday outside the parliament and the prime minister's office. Albania has been cited as a possible venue because it destroyed its own stockpile. Whoever receives the weapons will likely get significant assistance from the United States, Russia and other powers.
Brende said he expected the U.S. will play a major role in the destruction effort. Norway also announced a $14.5 million donation to the chemical weapons body and $16 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Syrian civilians. That takes total Norwegian humanitarian assistance during the war to $137 million.
Syria's conflict has killed more than 120,000 people in the past 2½ years, according to activists, and displaced millions more.