TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania on Friday rejected a request from the United States for the tiny impoverished Balkan nation to host the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, a major blow to international efforts to destroy the arsenal by mid-2014.
In a televised address, Prime Minister Edi Rama said it was "impossible for Albania to take part in this operation."
The announcement was greeted by a loud cheer from some 2,000 protesters camped outside Rama's office who opposed the plan to dismantle the weapons in Albania.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been discussing a plan to destroy Syria's estimated 1,000-metric ton arsenal, which includes mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin.
Syria says it wants the weapons destroyed outside the country and the OPCW has described that as the "most viable" option. A Friday morning meeting of the OPCW's Executive Council in The Hague was adjourned to allow national delegations to work on the wording of the plan.
Meanwhile, outside Rama's office, hundreds of youths camped overnight to protest the plan.
"We don't have the infrastructure here to deal with the chemical weapons. We can't deal with our own stuff, let alone Syrian weapons," said 19-year-old architecture student Maria Pesha, echoing the fears of many residents. "We have no duty to obey anyone on this, NATO or the U.S."
Any destruction of Syria's weapons, wherever it happens, will be overseen by experts from the Hague-based OPCW, which won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for its efforts to eradicate poison gas and nerve agents around the world.
The risky disarmament operation in the midst of a raging civil war started more than a month ago with inspections. Then machinery used to mix chemicals and fill empty munitions was smashed, thereby ending the Syrian government's capability to make new weapons.
Albania, a member of NATO, is one of only three nations worldwide that has declared a chemical weapons stockpile to the OPCW and destroyed it. Nations including the United States and Russia also have declared stockpiles, but have not yet completed their destruction.
However, Albania was a controversial choice. The nation of 2.8 million people descended into anarchy in 1997 following the collapse of shady investment schemes that cost many Albanians their life savings. Residents also looted thousands of weapons from state arms depots that year.
In March 2008, an explosion at Gerdec near the capital of Tirana killed 26 people, wounded 300 others and destroyed or damaged 5,500 houses. Investigators said it was caused by a burning cigarette in a factory where some 1,400 tons of explosives, mostly obsolete artillery shells, were stored for disposal.
The Syrian chemical disarmament mission stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus in which the United Nations determined that sarin was used. Hundreds of people were killed. The U.S. and Western allies accuse Syria's government of being responsible, while Damascus blames the rebels.
The Obama administration threatened to launch punitive missile strikes against Syria, prompting frantic diplomatic efforts to forestall an attack. Those efforts concluded with September's unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons.
Since then, international inspectors have visited 22 of the 23 chemical weapons sites declared by Syria and have confirmed that Damascus met a Nov. 1 deadline to destroy or "render inoperable" all chemical weapon production facilities.
In a clear indication the plan will involve transferring the chemical weapons out of Syria, Norway's foreign minister said Thursday his country would send a civilian cargo ship and a Navy frigate to Syria to pick up the stockpiles and carry them elsewhere for destruction.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Borge Brende said 50 servicemen usually accompany a Norwegian frigate and Brende acknowledged the operation is "not risk-free."
Just getting the chemical weapons to a Syrian port while the country is in the middle of a civil war will be a high-risk operation.
Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch diplomat running the joint United Nations-OPCW mission in Syria, told the meeting in The Hague her team is "conducting its business in an active war zone, in an extreme security situation with serious implications for the safety" of all personnel.
Syria's conflict — now in its third year — has killed more than 120,000 people, according to activists, and displaced millions. It started as an uprising against Assad's rule but later turned into a civil war. The fighting has pitted Assad's government forces against a disunited array of rebel factions, including al-Qaida-linked extremists.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said Friday that a government airstrike the previous night in northern Syria killed a senior rebel figure and wounded two commanders and the spokesman of the Tawhid Brigade, the main rebel outfit in Aleppo province.
According to the Observatory, the chief commander of the brigade, Abdul-Qadir Saleh, was wounded while the brigade's financial officer, Abu Tayeb, was killed.
Government troops have advanced in Aleppo over the past weeks, capturing strategic parts of the province, including the town of Safira, which secured a supply flow to government-held areas in the north.
Also Friday, Syria's state-run news agency SANA said troops now have full control of the central towns Hawarin and Mahin, where last week rebels captured small parts of a sprawling army complex. The area is known for its arms depot.
SANA said dozens of rebels have been killed in days of fighting and troops "destroyed a number of hideouts and big quantities of weapons."
The Observatory reported heavy fighting in Mahin and Hawarin.
Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.