Chemical weapons watchdog wins Nobel Peace Prize for Syrian mission

Reuters

* OPCW working with Syrian chemicals weapons

* Experts came under sniper fire

* Carries out its work despite Syria's civil war

By Balazs Koranyi and Alister Doyle

OSLO, Oct 11 (Reuters) - The global chemical weaponswatchdog working to eliminate chemical arms stockpiles aroundthe battlefields of Syria's civil war won the 2013 Nobel PeacePrize on Friday.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons(OPCW), a relatively small organisation with a modest budget,dispatched experts to Syria after a sarin gas attack killed morethan 1,400 people near Damascus in August.

Their deployment under a U.N. mandate helped avert a U.S.strike against President Bashar al-Assad and marked an unusual step into the limelight for a group more used to working behindthe scenes overseeing the destruction of chemical weaponsworldwide.

"We were aware that our work silently but surely wascontributing to peace in the world," OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcusaid. "The last few weeks have brought this to the fore. Theentire international community has been made aware of our work."

Nobel Peace Prize committee head Thorbjoern Jagland said theaward was a reminder to nations such as the United States andRussia to eliminate their own large stockpiles, "especiallybecause they are demanding that others do the same, like Syria".

"We now have the opportunity to get rid of an entirecategory of weapons of mass destruction...That would be a greatevent in history if we could achieve that," he said.

Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head a yearago by the Taliban, had been the bookmakers' favourite to winthe prize for her campaign for girls' right to education.

The OPCW Syria mission was unprecedented in taking place inthe heat of a civil war that has riven the country and killedmore than 100,000 people. Members of the Hague-based OPCW teamthemselves came under sniper fire on Aug. 26.

While the inspection and destruction of chemical weaponscontinues, with a team of 27 in the field, Assad forces andrebels clash across the country using conventional weapons.Human Rights Watch said this week rebels had killed at least 190civilians in Latakia province in August.

On Friday, government forces were trying to regain controlof an area around Safira, about 20km southeast of Aleppo. Thetown, controlled by rebels including the Islamic State in Iraqand the Levant, is close to a major suspected chemical site.

Friday's award marks a return to the disarmament roots ofthe prize after some recent awards including the European Unionlast year and U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009.

Those awards led to criticism that the committee was out ofline with the spirit of the prize, founded by Swedishindustrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.

His 1895 will says the prize should go to one of threecauses - "fraternity between nations", the abolition orreduction of standing armies, and the formation and spreading ofpeace congresses.

CHOKING, BURNS, CONVULSIONS

The process of destroying chemical weapons can be hazardousand is costly. The chemicals can be burnt, but with care not todisperse poisonous toxins, or chemically neutralised. U.N. headBan Ki-moon said this week the weapons would be "dangerous tohandle, dangerous to transport and dangerous to destroy".

"Chemical weapons are horrible things and they must never beused and that contributes not just to disarmament, butto strengthening the humanity within us," Malik Ellahi,political adviser to the OPCW director general, told Reuters.

"It has always been our position, that quintessentially wework for peace. Not just for peace, we work to strengthenhumanitarian norms."

The Hague-based OPCW was set up in 1997 to implement a 1992global Chemical Weapons Convention to banish chemical arms andmost recently helped destroy stockpiles in Iraq and Libya. Ithas about 500 staff and an annual budget under $100 million.

The United States and Russia had committed to destroyingtheir arsenals by 2012 but have as yet failed to do so.

OPCW head Uzumcu told Norway's NRK television: "I amsure...(the prize) will give encouragement to our staff todemonstrate more what they could do in terms of contributions toglobal peace and security."

He said 80 percent of stockpiles under the oversight of theOPCW, excluding Syria, had already been disposed of.

"Still, 20 percent will have to be destroyed," he said.

Chemical weapons can inflict considerable suffering anddeath, with choking, chemical burns and convulsions, and can bedispersed easily by winds making civilian populationsvulnerable. They were widely used in World War One.

More recently, in 1998, 5,000 people were gassed to death byIraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the town of Halabja.

RUSSIA AND ASSAD

Washington accused President Assad of conducting the Augustsarin attack, a charge he denied, while Russian PresidentVladimir Putin blamed rebels. Facing the threat of a U.S.strike, Assad eventually agreed to destroy Syria's sizeablechemical weapons programme and allow in OPCW inspectors.

Putin's spokesman said he had no comment on the award. But asenior lawmaker from the ruling United Russia party, VyacheslavNikonov, praised the decision and suggested some past awards, anapparent reference to the award to Obama, had been misguided.

"This is one of the best choices made by the Nobel Laureatecommittee in its history," Nikonov said on state television.

"They didn't want to make a mistake this time because therehave been too many."

The $1.25 million prize will be presented in Oslo on Dec.10, the anniversary of Nobel's death.

The OPCW, which has 189 member states, said Syria wascooperating and it could eliminate its chemical weapons bymid-2014, provided they received support from all sides in itscivil war.

Chemical weapons experts believe Syria has roughly 1,000tonnes of sarin, mustard and VX nerve gas, some of it stored asbulk raw chemicals and some of it already loaded onto missiles,warheads or rockets.

Under a Russian-U.S. deal struck last month, Syria mustrender useless all production facilities and weapons-fillingequipment by November, a process begun over the past severalweeks.

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