Syria has started moving chemical weapons materials out of the country in a crucial phase of an internationally backed disarmament program that has been delayed by war and technical problems.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said on Tuesday that "priority chemical materials" were transported to the port of Latakia and onto a Danish vessel that is now sailing toward international waters.
Syria promised to abandon its chemical weapons by June under a deal proposed by Russia and agreed to by the United States after an Aug. 21 sarin gas attack that Western nations blamed on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Damascus has blamed rebels for the attack.
War, bad weather, bureaucracy and technical issues meant a Dec. 31 deadline passed for the removal of the most deadly toxins from Syria.
The OPCW did not disclose what percentage of Syria's toxic arsenal — which totals 1,300 metric tons — had been removed but said nine containers of the most dangerous chemical materials were on the Danish cargo vessel.
"The vessel has been accompanied by naval escorts provided by Denmark and Norway as well as the Syrian Arab Republic," a statement said. "It will remain at sea awaiting the arrival of additional priority chemical materials at the port."
Maritime security was being provided by Chinese, Danish, Norwegian and Russian ships.
Government forces have retaken control of the highway linking Damascus to the coast — which is needed to transport the toxins. Rebel were ousted from three towns along the road, but activists say convoys on it will remain vulnerable to rebel ambushes.
Washington welcomed the removal of chemical materials and said Assad's government appeared to be sticking to the deal.
"Much more needs to be done," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a news briefing. "We have no reason to believe that the regime has gone back on any aspect of their promise."