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Oslo (AFP) – The watchdog now overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal won the Nobel Peace Prize Friday for its efforts to rid the world of the devastating weapons.

In a surprise choice, the Nobel committee honored the UN-backed Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for “its extensive efforts” in banishing the scourge of chemical arms.

“Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons,” the Norwegian jury said in its statement.

A team of around 30 OPCW arms experts and UN logistics and security personnel are on the ground in Syria and have started to destroy weapons production facilities.

The jury directly criticised the United States and Russia for failing to destroy their chemical weapons by April 2012, as required by the Chemical Weapons Convention.

“Certain states have not observed the deadline,” the jury said. “This applies especially to the USA and Russia.”

OPCW head Ahmet Uzumcu told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK the prize would be a major boost for his group’s efforts.

“I know that the Nobel Peace Prize will help us in fact to promote the universality of the Convention” in the coming months, he said.

The OPCW was not considered among the front-runners for the prize until the eve of the announcement.

Teenage Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege had been among the favourites for this year’s prize.

This marks the second consecutive year an organisation has won the prestigious award. Last year’s award went to the European Union.

The Hague-based OPCW was founded in 1997 to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention signed on January 13, 1993.

The convention is “one of the most successful non-proliferation agreements in history,” said Karl Dewey, a London-based expert with defence consultancy IHS Jane’s.

“It has near-universal coverage and the OPCW, the body that oversees compliance, has helped shape the international norms on the non-use of chemical weapons,” he said.

Until recently operating in relative obscurity, the OPCW has suddenly been catapulted into the global spotlight because of its work supervising the dismantling of Syria’s chemical arsenal and facilities.

This has to be completed by mid-2014 under the terms of a UN Security Council resolution.

‘A time for celebration’

“I’m proud of him and the organisation,” said the wife of one of the OPCW inspectors currently in Damascus.

“I guess it’s a time for celebration but he’s in Damascus so it’s not easy to celebrate,” she told AFP in The Hague, asking not to be named.

The OPCW said on Tuesday it was sending a second wave of inspectors to bolster the disarmament mission in the war-ravaged nation.

Since the OPCW came into existence 16 years ago, it has destroyed 57,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, the majority of them leftovers from the Cold War between the United States and Russia.

“It’s the slow steady laying down of bricks over the weeks, months and years, people sitting in control rooms watching this stuff going into the chutes,” OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan said recently.

The OPCW’s work was the “subject of years and years of patient diplomacy in which we’ve demonstrated that we do diplomacy very, very well. We’ve kept everybody aboard, we keep adding states, we’re approaching universality.”

To date, the OPCW has 189 members representing more than 98 percent of the world population, with Syria due to become a full-fledged member of the convention on Monday.

Israel and Myanmar signed in 1993 but have not yet ratified, according to the OPCW website.

Four states — North Korea, Angola, Egypt, South Sudan — have neither signed nor ratified the Convention.

The OPCW also provides assistance and protection to any member state subject to threats or attacks with chemical weapons.

Luhan, the OPCW spokesman, said the prize would not distract the organisation from its work.

“We’re in the process of trying to achieve something in Syria,” he said.

“If we achieve the objectives of this mission, then there’ll be something to celebrate.”

The head of the Stockholm peace research institute SIPRI meanwhile hailed the choice.

“I think it will increase the pressure on the last states that have not joined the OPCW to do so,” said SIPRI head Tilman Brueck.

“There are some security hotspots concerning chemical weapons and it will focus attention on those,” he said.

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