Washington - The US military has begun outfitting a ship with special equipment that will be used to destroy part of Syria's chemical arsenal, the Pentagon said on Monday.
A hydrolysis unit is being installed on the MV Cape Ray, a 200 meter cargo ship, which would be employed to neutralise some of Syria's lethal chemical agents, a spokesperson said.
"We are preparing the Cape Ray to be part of the destruction process if we're tasked with that mission," Colonel Steven Warren told reporters.
The ship, part of a reserve fleet used to help transport military hardware at short notice, is currently undergoing modifications at the naval port of Norfolk in Virginia, he said.
The US military had yet to receive formal orders to carry out the job but is "conducting prudent planning," he added.
The Pentagon acknowledged the preparations after the world's chemical watchdog agency, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said on Saturday that an American ship would help destroy the most dangerous of Syria's chemical agents.
US naval ships and aircraft would likely help provide security during the destruction effort at sea, according to two defence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Under an international agreement brokered to avoid US military strikes on Damascus, Syria's most dangerous chemical weapons have to be out of the country by a 31 December deadline.
Officials said the US ship would be equipped with a field deployable hydrolysis system, a new mobile unit developed by the Pentagon earlier this year.
Hydrolysis involves breaking down a lethal chemical agent such as mustard gas with hot water and other compounds, which results in a sludge equivalent to industrial toxic waste.
Sigrid Kaag, the top UN official from the joint UN-OPCW mission, on Saturday confirmed the role of a US ship to dilute the chemical agents and said the resulting by-products would be destroyed by private firms.
"The chemical effluents, what is left when destroyed, will be treated in countries through a number of companies," she told reporters in Damascus.
The US vessel "will not be in Syrian territorial waters," she added.
The OPCW has turned to the US military for assistance after no country volunteered to destroy the chemical weapons on its soil, despite an international consensus that the weapons be neutralised outside of Syria.
Destroying the chemical agents at sea offers political and practical advantages, as no government has to face domestic criticism for allowing the hazardous work inside its borders, experts said.