By BASSEM MROUE
and KARL RITTER
BEIRUT — The watchdog agency working to eliminate the world’s chemical weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in a powerful endorsement of the inspectors now on the ground in Syria on a perilous mission to destroy the regime’s stockpile of poison gas.
In honoring the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said “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 prize came 10 days after OPCW inspectors started arriving in war-torn Syria to oversee the dismantling of President Bashar Assad’s chemical arsenal.
While world leaders and former Nobel laureates praised the group’s selection, some in Syria lamented that the prize would do nothing to end the bloodshed, most of which is being inflicted with conventional weapons.
“The killing is continuing, the shelling is continuing and the dead continue to fall,” said Mohammed al-Tayeb, an activist who helped film casualties after the deadly chemical attack in August that the rebels and the government have blamed on each other.
The peace prize, he added, should have gone to “whoever helps the Syrian people get rid of Bashar Assad.”
After focusing on such themes as human rights and European unity in recent years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee this time returned to the core purpose of the 112-year-old Nobel Peace Prize — disarming the world.
Founded in 1997, the OPCW had largely worked out of the limelight until this year, when the United Nations called upon its expertise.
The OPCW’s selection caught many by surprise. It was widely expected that the peace prize would go to Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban last October for championing education for girls.
“She is an outstanding woman and I think she has a bright future, and she will probably be a nominee next year or the year after that,” said Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland.
The peace prize committee has a tradition of not just honoring past achievements, but encouraging causes or movements that are still unfolding.
The OPCW was formed to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention, the 1997 international treaty outlawing such arms. The Nobel Peace Prize came just days before Syria officially joins as OPCW’s 190th member state on Monday.
“I truly hope that this award and the OPCW’s ongoing mission together with the United Nations in Syria will (help) efforts to achieve peace in that country and end the suffering of its people,” OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu said at The Hague, Netherlands.
After the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds in Syria, Assad faced the prospect of a U.S. military strike. To avert that, he acknowledged his chemical weapons stockpile, and his government quickly signed on to the Chemical Weapons Convention and allowed OPCW inspectors into the country.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated the OPCW on Friday, saying: “Since that horrific attack, the OPCW has taken extraordinary steps and worked with unprecedented speed to address this blatant violation of international norms that shocked the conscience of people around the world.”
Former Soviet leader and 1990 Nobel peace laureate Mikhail Gorbachev said: “I believe this recognition can provide the impetus to accelerate efforts to rid the world of these deadly weapons. A chemical weapons-free world is within grasp.”
A senior Syrian rebel, Louay Safi, called the prize a “premature step” that will divert the world’s attention from the bloodletting, while Fayez Sayegh, a lawmaker from Syria’s ruling party, declared the Nobel to be a vindication of Assad’s government and its willingness to give up its chemical weapons.
In giving the prize to an international organization, the Nobel committee highlighted the Syrian civil war, now in its third year, without openly siding with any of the combatants. The fighting has killed more than 100,000 people, devastated many cities and towns and forced millions of Syrians to flee their homes and country.
U.N. war crimes investigators have accused both Assad’s government and the rebels of wrongdoing, although they say the regime’s abuses are worse.
Geir Lundestad, secretary of the Nobel committee, noted that the award was focused on chemical weapons, not the wider conflict in Syria, but added: “Of course, the committee hopes that a peaceful solution will be achieved in Syria.”
The struggle to control chemical weapons began in earnest after World War I, when agents such as mustard gas killed more than 100,000 people. The 1925 Geneva Convention banned the use of chemical weapons, but their production or storage wasn’t outlawed until the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force.
Seven nations — Albania, India, Iraq, Libya, Russia and the United States, along with a country identified by the OPCW only as “a state party” but widely believed to be South Korea — have declared chemical weapon stockpiles and have destroyed them or are in the process of doing so.
However, the Nobel committee noted that some countries, including the U.S. and Russia, have not met the April 2012 deadline.
“I have to recognize that they have particular challenges. They have huge stockpiles of chemical weapons,” the Nobel committee’s Jagland said. “What is important is that they do as much as they can and as fast as they can.”
According to the OPCW, 57,740 metric tons, or 81 percent, of the world’s declared stockpile of chemical agents have been verifiably destroyed. An OPCW report this year said the U.S. had destroyed about 90 percent of its arsenal, Russia 70 percent and Libya 51 percent.
Established by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, the Nobel Prizes have been handed out since 1901.
Ritter reported from Stockholm. AP reporters Mark Lewis in Oslo, Norway, Michael Corder in The Hague and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.