EDITH M. LEDERER
UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- The head of the mission charged with destroying Syria's chemical weapons said Wednesday the government has accelerated its efforts after several missed deadlines and that March will be critical if the country is to totally eliminate its stockpiles by the June 30 deadline.
Sigrid Kaag told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors that about one third of Syria's chemical weapons material has been removed or destroyed and "in the next few days we expect to reach already 40 or 41 percent."
The international community is aiming to remove and destroy 1,300 metric tons of chemicals.
The government missed a Dec. 31 deadline to remove the most dangerous chemicals in its stockpile from the war-torn country and a Feb. 5 deadline to give up its entire stockpile of chemical weapons. The Assad regime cited security concerns and the lack of some equipment but says it remains fully committed to the process.
Kaag said Syrian authorities submitted a revised timeline that would complete the removal and destruction in the country between the middle and end of April.
"The month of March, as I informed the Security Council, is the critical month to look at continued progress toward the overall deadline," she said.
The most toxic chemicals -- including mustard gas and raw materials for making sarin nerve agent -- are being put on Danish and Norwegian cargo ships at the Syrian port of Latakia and will be transferred to an American ship, MV Cape Ray, in the Italian port of Gioia Tauro. The Cape Ray is equipped with two machines that will render the chemicals inert.
Kaag said the revised timeline will be "in time, should all go well, to meet the overall deadline of June 30."
The international effort to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons program was sparked by an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that killed hundreds of people and was blamed on the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which denied involvement.
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