WASHINGTON – Albania on Friday rejected the United States’ request to allow Syria’s chemical weapons to be destroyed on its soil, dealing a blow to the international effort to dismantle President Bashar Assad’s toxic arsenal.
The decision by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama came after several days of protests in the small Balkan nation, where activists have opposed taking in Syria’s chemical weapons because of environmental and security concerns.
The international watchdog agency spearheading the disarmament effort has called for the weapons to be destroyed outside Syria, which is in the midst of a grinding civil war, but no country has volunteered to host the effort.
U.S. officials had been putting public pressure on Albania – a historically pro-American country – because it destroyed its own small chemical arsenal several years ago.
U.S. Ambassador Alexander Arvizu told an Albanian television channel late Thursday that President Barack Obama had made the request directly to Rama in writing, and invited him to visit Washington next year.
But Rama’s Socialist government came to power this year in part on pledges to stop the import of conventional waste from other European nations, a practice that has earned the impoverished nation millions of dollars in revenue but also raised fears among some that their country was becoming a garbage dump.
Besar Likmeta, a journalist in Tirana, the capital, said a crowd of Albanians gathered outside Rama’s office Friday afternoon to celebrate the announcement.
The decision adds uncertainty to the U.S.-backed plan to rid Assad of his arsenal of sarin, mustard gas and VX by mid-2014.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was meeting at the Hague to finalize a disarmament plan but didn’t immediately react to Albania’s announcement.