The first batch of Syrian poison gas chemicals has been loaded onto a Danish cargo ship and taken out of the war-torn country.
The announcement by UN official Sigrid Kaag that the raw materials had been loaded onto the ship at Syria's Latakia port marked a belated but crucial step in the international operation to rid president Bashar Assad of his declared chemical weapons programme by mid-year.
Ms Kaag is the Dutch diplomat leading the joint mission by the UN and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to destroy Syria's chemical stockpile.
The most dangerous chemicals were supposed to have been removed from the country by December 31, but poor security, bad weather and other factors meant the mission missed that deadline.
Ms Kaag said: "The vessel has now left the port of Latakia for international waters. It will remain at sea awaiting the arrival of additional priority chemical materials at the port."
Security for the highly toxic cargo is being provided by war ships from Russia, China, Denmark and Norway.
"This is an important step commencing the transportation of these materials as part of the plan to complete their disposal outside the territory of Syria," OPCW Director-General Mehmet Uzumcu said.
The chemicals will eventually be transferred to a US ship which has been fitted with special machinery, and destroyed on board.