United States authorities have contacted the Portuguese Government regarding the transshipping of 500 tons of chemical materials from Syria via Praia da Vitória, Terceira, Azores.
The materials, already in international waters, began to be shipped out of Syria on January 7 under a disarmament agreement that had been agreed with Damascus.
The Portuguese media speculated Tuesday that a deal with Washington had been already reached, after the Portuguese Government, along with the Regional Government of the Azores, looked into “technical, environmental and security questions” involving the operation.
Conflicting statements from the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) have confirmed the request from Washington, but had indicated late Tuesday that no decision had been taken.
The US request follows the framework of Resolution 2118, adopted unanimously by the Security Council of the United Nations and with the approval of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), according to a statement by Rui Machete, Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Portugal was contacted “as an ally committed to finding a solution to the conflict in Syria and in view of its geostrategic position,” Machete’s statement said.
The chemical arsenal will be transshipped from a Danish vessel into a US vessel and dumped at sea, into the Atlantic Ocean, in international waters, outside the Portuguese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The operation had been scheduled to take place before December 31, 2013, but the worsening civil war in Syria, logistical problems, delays in the supply and availability of equipment necessary for the transport of the hazardous materials and bad weather delayed the mission.
Terceira island is home to the US Lajes Air Field, a strategic military base which mission is to protect US interests, allowing for US timely deployment of military personnel aircraft and communications. In 2012, the United States informed the Portuguese government that the future of the Lajes Air Field was uncertain and that US Air Force was losing interest in the military facility.
Lajes Air Field is the second largest employer on the island, employing about 700 tenured Portuguese workers and nearly 90 short-term workers. The US decision to down size the military outpost will have a significant economic impact over job losses on the island.
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The Azores (population 250,000) became an Autonomous Region of Portugal in 1976. The government of the Autonomous Region of the Azores includes the Legislative Assembly, composed of 57 elected deputies, elected by universal suffrage for a four-year term; the Regional Government and Presidency, with parliamentary legitimacy, composed of a President, a Vice-President and seven Regional Secretaries responsible for the Regional Government executive operations. The Autonomous Region of the Azores is represented in the Council of Ministers of the Central Government by a representative appointed by the President of Portugal.