Italian authorities and local community near the southern town of Gioia Tauro made final preparations on Tuesday for the transfer of Syria's chemical arsenal, which was due to begin on Wednesday, Xinhua reported.
As the U.S. Navy Cape Ray was escorted by coast guard vessels into Gioia Tauro port early in the morning, government's representatives and local authorities set up an Emergency Control Room in charge of monitoring all operations from the prefecture of the nearby Reggio Calabria city.
At a preliminary meeting held on Tuesday, representatives from Italy's foreign ministry and experts from the National Institute of Health and the Organisation for the Prohibition of chemical weapons (OPCW) were present.
"An exceptional effort was made to provide the highest degree of safety for the transhipment," Reggio Calabria prefect Claudio Sammartino said after the meeting.
According to OPCW plan, the Syrian chemicals are to be transferred from Danish cargo Ark Futura to Cape Ray at some point on Wednesday, with both ships docked at Gioia Tauro. The operation would take about 48 hours, authorities said.
The stock of Syrian weapons comprises of approximately 560 tonnes of chemicals, including mustard gas and one precursor of the nerve gas Sarin. Once the transfer has been completed, the destruction of chemicals will be carried out aboard the Cape Ray in international waters.
With regard to Gioia Tauro, all measures agreed in the security plan were implemented: additional fences and checkpoints were installed around the port for one and a half kilometre square. The maritime surveillance was also increased and a one kilometre no-fly zone was declared and due to remain in place until July 3rd.
Despite all the measures, in fact, the local community was visibly distressed. The transfer of Syria's most lethal chemicals has worried local authorities and citizens since Gioia Tauro port was sorted out, with regard to the risks the operation might entail for both population and environment.
After the emergency meeting, however, mayors seemed a bit reassured.
"Today the prefect personally assured me the Syrian arsenal here does not contain Sarin gas, but only mustard gas and one precursor of Sarin. This is somehow comforting," San Ferdinando's mayor Domenico Madafferi told Xinhua.
The mayor said he felt less worried after the security measures were put in place. Anyway, a civil protection's plan containing behaviour guidelines in case of incidents with chemicals was published on San Ferdinando municipality's web site.
"We thought it useful. Despite the prefecture did not entirely agree with us for fear it might cause panic among citizens, I believed people needed to receive clear instructions," Madafferi explained.
Gioia Tauro port is considered one of the largest seaports in Europe and is specialised in transhipping activities. When it was sorted out to host this delicate operation in January, Italy's Minister of Infrastructure Maurizio Lupi assured that "none of the containers with chemicals would be brought on docks" because the operation would be "a ship-to-ship transfer with no storage".
Yet, local authorities complained for not being involved enough in the decision-making process, while citizens and environment associations staged several protests because they felt they had not been given guarantees regarding what was exactly inside the containers.
After the announcement in January, mayor Madafferi even threatened to close the docks of Gioia Tauro, which fall mostly under San Ferdinando's control. On Tuesday, less than 24 hours before the operation began, he sounded a little more confident.
"I am pretty sure nothing wrong will happen, because I was told the substances are in liquid form and the containers have a triple protection," he told Xinhua.