By Benjamin Mallet and Andrew Osborn
PARIS/LONDON, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Britain said on Thursday it will pay France's Veolia Environnement to incinerate 150 tonnes of Syrian poison gas precursors in northern England, the first deal for a private firm to help destroy Syria's chemical arms programme in the UK.
Facing the threat of U.S. air strikes, the government of Bashar al-Assad last year promised to dismantle its chemical arsenal, telling the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) it had 1,300 tonnes of such weapons.
Foreign powers have scrambled to find countries to destroy the chemicals. The most toxic are first to be processed on board a U.S. ship. Less dangerous precursor chemicals are to be destroyed commercially at industrial facilities.
Britain agreed in December to destroy part of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile and to escort Scandinavian ships transporting the toxic cargo.
The industrial-grade chemicals, which are of the type used routinely in the pharmaceutical industry, will be processed at Veolia's high-temperature incineration plant at Ellesmere Port, near Liverpool on the west coast of northern England.
"It has been agreed that Veolia will facilitate the destruction of this material under an existing contract with the Ministry of Defence," said a spokesman from Britain's Foreign Office.
Estelle Brachlianoff, Veolia's executive vice-president, UK & Northern Europe, confirmed her company had won the work.
"We will continue to work closely with the Ministry of Defence and relevant UK authorities to ensure the safe destruction of these chemicals," she said in a statement.
Neither side said how much the new deal was worth.
Under a tight deadline agreed with the United States and Russia, Damascus has until the middle of this year to dismantle its entire chemical weapons programme.
The removal and destruction of the most dangerous chemical agents is supposed to be finished earlier, but the head of the OPCW said on Thursday that deadline was likely to slip.
A source familiar with the matter told Reuters earlier on Thursday that the British government was expected to award another, bigger contract for the destruction of Syrian chemicals at a later date.