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THE HAGUE/TIRANA (Reuters) - Albania rejected on Friday a U.S. request to host the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, dealing a blow to a U.S.-Russian accord to eliminate such arms from the country's protracted civil war.
Negotiations went down to the wire as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague hit the deadline on Friday for a step-by-step plan to get rid of 1,300 tonnes of Syria's sarin, mustard gas and other agents.
After the Albanian decision, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning body adopted a plan on Friday night that set out deadlines in the destruction process but did not name a host country for the effort or provide details on security arrangements.
Albania's refusal marked an unprecedented break from its traditionally staunch allegiance to NATO ally Washington and may make it hard to meet destruction deadlines. It followed a storm of protest in the Adriatic republic, where protesters complained of exploitation.
"It is impossible for Albania to get involved in this operation," Prime Minister Edi Rama, just two months in the job, said in a televised address to the nation.
"We lack the necessary capacities to get involved in this operation," he said, following days of growing protests outside government buildings.
Hundreds of demonstrators, including students skipping school classes, gathered earlier on Friday to denounce the plan for Albania to host the destruction of the Syrian weapons, "NO" painted on their faces.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki sought to downplay the Albanian decision, saying several other nations "are seriously considering ... hosting the destruction efforts."
She did not identify these but said the United States expects that the timelines for the destruction of the Syrian weapons would be met despite the Albanian refusal.
There was no immediate indication where the United States or Russia might look next to dispose of thousands of tonnes of toxic waste. One source briefed on the discussions said Washington had bet on Albanian cooperation.
Faced with the threat of U.S. missile strikes, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September agreed to destroy his entire chemical weapons stockpile following a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of people in Damascus on August 21.
Washington said only Assad's forces could have carried out the attack, a charge the Syrian leader denied.
The plan adopted by the OPCW on Friday called for the "most critical" chemicals to be transported out of Syria by December 31, with the removal of all declared chemical substances and precursors, except for isopropanol, one of two key ingredients for sarin, no later than February 5.
Under the plan, Syria's chemical weapons facilities would be gradually destroyed between December 15 and March 15, while the destruction of the priority chemical weapons would be completed outside Syria by March 31. All other declared chemical materials would be eliminated by June 30.
"The plan provides a clear roadmap. It sets ambitious milestones to be met by the government," OPCW Director General Ahmet Uzumcu said in a statement. "This next phase will be the most challenging, and its timely execution will require the existence of a secure environment for the verification and transport of chemical weapons."
"Continuing international support and assistance for this endeavour will remain crucial," he said.
Saying it respected Albania's decision, the United States said the deadlines could still be met.
"The United States will continue to work with allies and partners as well as the OPCW and the United Nations to ensure the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons program," the U.S. embassy in Tirana said in a statement. "We remain confident that we will complete elimination of the program within the timeline agreed upon."
Still to be worked out is how to safely transport the chemical weapons through contested territory to a port in northern Syria to be shipped abroad.
Once the chemicals are safely out of Syria, the pressure will be off for them to be destroyed in the short term, but diplomats are concerned they could be targeted by militants or stolen and sold on the black market.
Additional reporting by Lou Charbonneau in New York and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham