DAMASCUS : The first ship carrying Syrian chemical materials left port of Latakia Tuesday under a deal to rid the country of its chemical arsenal, said the joint mission overseeing the disarmament.
Meanwhile, the head of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front, called for an end to four days of clashes between rebels and the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) that has killed at least 274 people.
 “A first quantity of priority chemical materials was moved from two sites to the port of Latakia for verification and was then loaded onto a Danish commercial vessel today,” the United Nations-Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (UN-OPCW) mission said.
The ship then sailed for international waters, eight days after a December 31 deadline for the operation to begin was missed. Tuesday’s shipment “initiates the process of transfer of chemical materials from the Syrian Arab Republic to locations outside its territory for destruction,” the UN-OPCW statement said. The ship, under escort by Chinese, Danish, Norwegian and Russian naval vessels, will stand offshore until more chemicals arrive at the port and then return to collect them.
Syria agreed last year to a US-Russian deal to hand over its chemical weapons. That came after US President Barack Obama threatened air strikes in response to an August chemical weapons attack outside Damascus that killed hundreds of people, which Washington blamed on the Syrian regime. Under the plan, the chemicals will be transported to an Italian port and offloaded onto a US vessel, where they will be destroyed.
The mission has a June deadline to complete the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, which include the deadly nerve agent sarin and mustard gas. At OPCW headquarters in the Hague, director general Ahmet Uzumcu said the first removal was an “important step.” “I encourage the Syrian government to maintain the momentum to remove the remaining priority chemicals, in a safe and timely manner, so that they can be destroyed as quickly as possible,” he said in a statement. Meanwhile, clashes continued between fighters from the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and a coalition of moderate and Islamist rebels.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy fighting in Raqa, the only provincial capital that has fallen from regime hands and a one-time ISIL stronghold. The Observatory said 274 had been killed in the clashes since Friday, including 129 rebel fighters, 46 civilians and 99 ISIL members. More than 130,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict since it erupted in March 2011. The coalition attacked ISIL, angered over its alleged abuses in rebel-held areas, including the kidnapping, torture and killing of civilians and rival rebels.