A specially-outfitted US naval ship departed for the Mediterranean on Monday to contribute to international efforts to destroy components of Syria's chemical arsenal, the Pentagon said.
The MV Cape Ray set off from the coast of Virginia for Italy's Gioia Tauro port where a Danish ship was slated to transfer chemical components removed from Syria.
Some of the most dangerous chemicals from Syria - including components for making Sarin and VX nerve agent, known as priority A chemicals - are due to be transferred at the port in southern Italy next month from a Danish ship onto the US vessel, which has been equipped to destroy them at sea using hydrolysis technology.
The Italian government said that the port routinely handles thousands of tons of toxic chemicals every year and the operation would pose no additional safety threat.
"All waste from the hydrolysis process on MV Cape Ray will be safely and properly disposed of at commercial facilities to be determined by the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons]," said a statement from the US Defense Department.
The US called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to intensify efforts to comply with international requirements to hand over the remaining chemical materials from the country for destruction.
Syria has missed the Dec. 31 deadline for transporting the most toxic substances to a port and has so far loaded only about 5 percent of the chemicals onto the Danish cargo ship, a senior western diplomat said last week.
But the OPCW, overseeing the operation, said it remained confident that a final deadline of 30 June 2014 for the destruction of Syria's entire arsenal of chemical weapons would be met.
The international agreement was reached after a Sarin gas attack on Aug. 21 killed hundreds of people in the outskirts of Damascus, prompting the United States to threaten military action against Assad.