Albania, a small, impoverished Balkan nation that is one of the United States' staunchest supporters, on Friday firmly rejected a U.S. request for it to host the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.
The surprise refusal was a major blow to international efforts to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal by mid-2014. It left the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons without a country to host the destruction of Syria's estimated 1,000-tonne arsenal, which includes mustard gas and the deadly nerve agent sarin.
Syria says it wants the weapons destroyed outside the country, which has been devastated by an ongoing civil war, and the OPCW has described that as the "most viable" option.
In a televised address from the capital of Tirana, 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 to show their strong opposition to the plan, fearing it would be an environmental and health hazard.
Albania had been considered the OPCW's strongest hope, as few diplomats expected the Mediterranean nation of 2.8 million people to reject what Rama said had been a direct request from the United States. A Friday morning meeting of the OPCW's Executive Council in The Hague had been adjourned to work on the wording of the plan.
NATO-member Albania is one of only three nations worldwide that have declared a chemical weapons stockpile to the OPCW and destroyed it. Nations including the U.S. and Russia also have declared stockpiles, but have not yet completed their destruction.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki told reporters the decision would not hurt U.S.-Albanian relations.
"We appreciate Albania looking seriously at hosting the destruction of chemical weapons," she said. "The international community continues to discuss the most effective and expeditious means for eliminating Syria's chemical weapons program in the safest manner possible."
Tirana has been an avid supporter of Washington since the U.S. and NATO intervened with airstrikes in 1999 to stop a crackdown by Serb forces on rebel ethnic Albanians in neighboring Kosovo.
"Without the United States, Albanians would never have been free and independent in two countries that they are today," Rama said in an apologetic speech. "Without the United States, today there would surely be no demonstrations about chemical weapons."
But the plan was unpopular at home.
"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, among the protesters camped out overnight outside Rama's office. "We have no duty to obey anyone on this, NATO or the U.S."
Albania has had problems with ammunition storage in the past.
In March 2008, an explosion at an ammunition dump at Gerdec near 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 1,270 tonnes of explosives, mostly obsolete artillery shells, were stored for disposal.
Rama said he decided to reject the request because other countries, which he did not name, were not prepared to be a part of the operation.
"If some other countries would have moved in time to be part of this operation I would have been ready to tell you: This is our plan, here is the agreement with our partners, here is how little we will risk and how much we will gain morally as a nation and physically as a country," Rama said.
"Unfortunately this element, (as) important for me as it is for you, is today absent," he said.
Wherever and whenever it happens, the destruction of Syria's weapons 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. Machinery used to mix chemicals and fill empty munitions was smashed, ending the Syrian government's capability to make new weapons.
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 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 pick up the stockpiles and carry them elsewhere for destruction.
Just getting the chemical weapons to a Syrian port during the 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.
More than 120,000 killed in Syria
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-Qaeda-linked extremists.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on 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.
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 part of a sprawling army complex.
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.