An elite Syrian unit that runs the government’s chemical arms programme has been scattering the weapons to dozens of sites across the country, US newspaper the “Wall Street Journal” reported on Thursday.
The newspaper, citing unnamed US officials and lawmakers, reported on its website that a secretive military group known as Unit 450 had been moving the stocks around for months to help avoid detection of the weapons, potentially complicating US plans for air strikes.
US and Israeli intelligence agencies and Middle Eastern officials still believe they know the location of most of the government’s chemical weapons supply, according to the “Wall Street Journal”. But “we know a lot less than we did six months ago about where the chemical weapons are”, one official was quoted as saying.
The paper quoted a senior US official, who said that Washington estimates that Damascus has 1,000 tonnes of chemical and biological agents, “although there might be more”.
Shipments began a year ago
After traditionally storing most of its chemical and biological weapons at a few sites in western Syria, the government started dispersing the weapons about a year ago, officials cited in the article said.
They added that the US now believes the arsenal has been moved to up to 50 sites in the west, north, south and east of the country.
There are no plans to bomb chemical weapons sites directly because of the potential risk that poisons could be dispersed to civilian areas, officials told the paper.
Syria’s civil war has killed more than 100,000 people since 2011.
The US and its allies say Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces carried out a chemical weapons attack in a Damascus neighbourhood on August 21 that US officials say killed about 1,400 people, including 400 children.
The US and Russia began high-stakes talks on Thursday on Moscow’s plan for Syria to surrender its chemical weapons, part of a diplomatic push that prompted US President Barack Obama to delay plans for air strikes in response to the attack.
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