THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for working to eliminate the scourge that has haunted generations from World War I to the battlefields of Syria.
The reaction in Syria to the Nobel decision was notably polarized. A senior Syrian rebel called the award a `'premature step" that will divert the world's attention from "the real cause of the war" while a ruling party lawmaker declared it to be a vindication of President Bashir Assad's government.
The OPCW was formed in 1997 to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention, the first international treaty to outlaw an entire class of weapons. Based in The Hague, Netherlands, it has largely worked out of the limelight until this year, when the United Nations called on its expertise to help investigate alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria.
"The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law," the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in Oslo. "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."
Friday's award comes just days before Syria officially joins as the group's 190th member state. OPCW inspectors are already on a highly risky U.N.-backed disarmament mission based in Damascus to verify and destroy the government's arsenal of poison gas and nerve agents amid a raging civil war.
"Events in Syria have been a tragic reminder that there remains much work still to be done," OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu (AKH'-meht ooh-ZOOM'-joo) told reporters in The Hague. "Our hearts go out to the Syrian people who were recently victims of the horror of chemical weapons."
"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," he said.
He said the $1.2 million prize money would be used "for the goals of the convention" -- to eliminate chemical weapons.
By giving the peace award to an international organization, the Nobel committee found a way to highlight the devastating Syrian civil war, now in its third year, without siding with any group involved. 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, according to the U.N.
The first OPCW inspection team arrived in Syria last week, followed by another team this week. They have already begun to oversee the first stages of destruction of Assad's chemical weapons.
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 and injured a million more. The 1925 Geneva Convention prohibited the use of chemical weapons but their production or storage wasn't outlawed until the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997.
According to the OPCW, 57,740 metric tons, or 81.1 percent, of the world's declared stockpile of chemical agents have been verifiably destroyed. Albania, India and "a third country" -- believed to be South Korea -- have completed the destruction of their declared stockpiles.
An OPCW report earlier this year said the United States had destroyed about 90 percent of its stockpile of the weapons, Russia had destroyed 70 percent and Libya 51 percent.
Nations not belonging to the OPCW include North Korea, Angola, Egypt and South Sudan. Israel and Myanmar have signed but not ratified the convention.
The peace prize was the last of the original Nobel Prizes to be announced for this year. The winners of the economics award, added in 1968, will be announced on Monday.