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Biden ready to discuss disposal of U.S. chemical arms on Panama trip

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks after a meeting with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto at Los Pinos Presidential Residence in Mexic
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks after a meeting with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto at Los Pinos Presidential Residence in Mexic

By Mark Felsenthal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Joe Biden will be ready to discuss with Panamanian officials next week the disposal of American chemical weapons left on an island off Panama's coast during the 1940s when he visits the Central American nation, U.S. officials said on Friday.

The issue of the chemical munitions on San Jose island, located 60 miles off Panama's Pacific coast, has been an irritant in relations between the two countries.

Panama in May formally requested through the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that the United States dispose of the weapons, which are the legacy of U.S. military tests conducted on the island. The weapons are known to contain phosgene and mustard gas.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the Biden trip, said that Biden will be prepared to talk about the matter during the visit "based on the conversations that we've been having with Panamanian officials."

"We're aware of Panama's formal request in May to have eight U.S.-origin chemical munitions destroyed," the official told reporters on a conference call.

"This is something that we're reviewing right now and have committed to resolving in a timely manner," the official said.

The issue of chemical weapons has particular resonance in light of the ongoing process of dismantling Syria's arsenal of chemical arms following an attack involving sarin gas on civilians outside the Syrian capital Damascus in August.

The United States and its allies blamed Syria's government for the attack and threatened a military strike before Syria agreed in a deal worked out by Russian and American officials to give up its chemical weapons.

The United States had asked Albania to host the destruction of Syria's chemical arms, but Albania rejected the request on Friday after protests in the Adriatic country.

Biden also is set to tour the Panama Canal expansion in a visit that is part of U.S. efforts to strengthen ties with Latin America. U.S. transportation officials and city mayors will join him on a trip aimed in part at drawing attention to trade and the need to enlarge U.S. ports to handle the mega-ships that will be traversing the canal.

(Editing by Will Dunham)

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