VIENNA, Feb 24 (Reuters) - The world financial crisis may make it harder for nations to foot the multibillion-dollar costs of eliminating chemical arms stocks by a 2012 treaty deadline, the director of a watchdog agency said on Tuesday.
Some 186 countries have ratified the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that bans, with international verification, a whole category of mass-destruction weaponry, leaving only nine outside, mainly in the Middle East and East Asia.
The CWC has made great progress with 43 percent of known chemical weapons stockpiles already verifiably destroyed and 61 of 65 production plants converted irreversibly to peaceful uses, treaty organisation chief Rogelio Pfirter said.
Russia and the United States, the two biggest chemical weapons holders, had scrapped 30 percent and 58 percent of their arsenals respectively and recommitted to finishing the job by 2012, he told reporters during a visit to Vienna.
But the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said chemical disarmament was "an enormously expensive business" for ecological and legal reasons and the worsening financial crunch "certainly does not help us".
"I would say it will cost tens of billions of dollars for the United States, and several billions for Russia", which has also depended on Western financial aid to carry out the task.
Costs were aggravated, Pfirter said, by the need for chemical weapons to be destroyed one by one, not in bulk, for safety reasons, and by litigation, especially in the United States, spurred by environmental fears.
Other countries with declared chemical weapons now close to scrapping them were India, Albania and Libya, said the veteran Argentine diplomat, who is based in The Hague.
CWC member states at a review conference last year called on all outsiders to ratify the pact quickly without preconditions.
Holdouts are mainly in violence-ridden regions -- North Korea, Myanmar, Somalia, Angola, Egypt, Israel, Syria -- as well as the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas.
Pfirter conceded unresolved conflicts were major obstacles to disarmament in these areas but said there was no strategic rationale for shunning the treaty since chemical weapons could do little but terrorise civilians.
The last known use of chemical weapons was in 1988 when Iraq under then-dictator Saddam Hussein attacked Kurds with poison gas, killing tens of thousands of people.
Pfirter would not be drawn on suggestions he could become a compromise candidate for head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, given indications neither of the two declared candidates can garner a winning majority in a coming election.
"You can't predict the future. We'll see," said Pfirter, who was a veteran nuclear treaty negotiator before taking the chemical agency helm in 2002. His tenure expires next year.
Editing by Michael Roddy