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UN: Syria Unlikely To Meet Dec. 31 Target

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent a message to Pope Francis.Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent a message to Pope Francis.
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent a message to Pope Francis.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent a message to Pope Francis.
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By RFE/RL
The United Nations says it’s "unlikely" Syria’s government will meet a December 31 deadline to move its most dangerous chemical arms out of the country.

The announcement came as further deaths were reported in the Syrian conflict.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 25 people had been killed in a government air strike that hit a vegetable market in a rebel-held neighborhood in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

In another development, the Syrian government said President Bashar al-Assad had sent a message to Roman Catholic Pope Francis, vowing to protect Syrians of all religions against hard-line Sunni Muslim Islamists who are fighting with the opposition.

The pope has repeatedly called for an end to the Syrian conflict, which began in March, 2011.

In a joint statement December 28, the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said "important progress" has been made on eliminating Syria's toxic arms.

However, the statement said it did not appear that the government would meet a year-end deadline to move its most toxic chemicals out of the country.

The statement called on the Assad government to "intensify efforts" to meet internationally-set deadlines.

The statement acknowledged “continuing volatility in overall security conditions” because of the war. It said security concerns had “constrained planned movements” connected to the weapons removal.

Toxins that can be used in sarin, VX gas, and other agents are planned to be transported out of Syria from the port of Lakatia.

The materials are to eventually be transported to a U.S. military ship for destruction.

The UN–OPCW statement confirmed that the Syrian government has already completed the destruction of all missiles that could be used to carry chemical weapons.

The OPCW has been working in Syria since October following approval of a UN Security Council resolution that decreed that Syria’s chemical weapons must be destroyed by mid-2014.

Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons after negotiations between Russia, an ally of the regime, and the United States, which has backed the opposition.

The deal was struck after the United States threatened air strikes on government targets following a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on August 21 that killed hundreds of people.

The regime, backed by its allies Russia and Iran, have blamed rebels for the attack. The opposition and its supporters, including the United States, have blamed pro-Assad forces.

UN investigators have confirmed a series of chemical attacks in Syria, but have not been authorized to make a determination on who carried them out.

The Syrian government said a government delegation had delivered Assad’s message to the pope during a visit to the Vatican.

The official Syrian Arab News Agency said Assad expressed his government's "determination to exercise its right to defend all its citizens, whatever their religion, against the crimes committed by the Takfiri,” or Sunni Muslim extremists.

The rebels fighting to oust the government are mainly Sunni. The government, meanwhile, gets much of its support from Assad's own Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, as well as from Christians and other minorities.

The pope last week used his "Urbi et Orbi" speech on Christmas Day to call for the warring factions to permit humanitarian aid deliveries and to halt the bloodshed.

The pope said: "Too many lives have been shattered in recent times by the conflict in Syria, fuelling hatred and vengeance."

Internationally-backed talks between the government and rebel representatives are due to begin January 22 in Switzerland.

With reporting from AP and AFP

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