TIRANA, Albania — The mission to destroy Syria’s poison gas stockpile was dealt a serious blow Friday when Albania refused to host the destruction, but the global chemical weapons watchdog said it is still confident it can eradicate the weapons outside Syria by the middle of next year.

The surprise refusal by the small and impoverished Balkan country left open the question of where the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would send Syria’s estimated 1,300-ton arsenal, which includes mustard gas and sarin.

The OPCW went ahead with a lengthy meeting and adopted a formal plan, but did not say where the deadly arsenal would go. Syria has said it wants the weapons destroyed outside the country, which is in the middle of a raging civil war

“I can’t name a country at this point but obviously there are options and there are ways in which this can be accomplished,” senior OPCW official Malik Ellahi told reporters outside the organization’s Hague headquarters.

According to an OPCW statement, the plan calls for the “most critical” chemicals to be removed from Syria by Dec. 31.

Albania had been considered its strongest hope, and few diplomats expected the NATO country of 2.8 million people to reject what Prime Minister Edi Rama said had been a direct request from the U.S.

But the plan was unpopular in Albania, and young protesters had camped outside Rama’s office to oppose it, fearing a health and environmental hazard.

In a televised address from the capital of Tirana, Rama said that it was “impossible for Albania to take part in this operation” — an announcement that was greeted by a loud cheer from some of the 2,000 protesters.

Rama said he rejected the request because other countries, which he did not identify, were not prepared to be a part of the operation.

Ellahi said the close U.S. ally had not explained why it turned down the request.

“It was a sovereign decision that Albania has taken,” he said.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki said the decision would not hurt U.S.-Albanian relations.Gia nonem