Inspectors return to Libya for chemical weapons sweep

Chemical weapons inspectors plan to return to Libya in the coming weeks to examine two new sites containing possible chemical weapons stockpiles that Muammar Gaddafi’s regime apparently tried to hide.

Michael Luhan, spokesperson for the organisation that oversees the global ban on chemical weapons, told the Associated Press on Thursday that inspection teams will be sent to Libya immediately after the transitional government sends a declaration on the contents of the new stockpiles.

Destroying the new chemical weapons is likely to be complicated and costly, he said, “so that means these stockpiles could be vulnerable … for another six months to a year”.

Luhan said it’s important that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, work closely with the new government to ensure proper security at the sites at all times.

He said this is crucial — especially if media reports that the stockpiles include chemical weapons agents ready for use prove to be true.

Chemical weapons
“If it’s weaponised, it means that it could be moved without a great deal of risk if someone chose to do so,” Luhan said.

Earlier this month, Libyan authorities announced the discovery of two military compounds housing chemical weapons that an official said were ready to be assembled and used, as well as another site containing 7 000 drums of raw uranium. The officials would not give further details.

Libya declared in 2004 it had 25 metric tons of sulphur mustard and 1 400 metric tons of precursor chemicals used to make chemical weapons. It also declared more than 3 500 unfilled aerial bombs designed for use with chemical warfare agents such as sulphur mustard and three chemical weapons production facilities.

At that time, Gaddafi was trying to shed his image as an international outcast and restore relations with Western governments, pledging not only to dismantle his chemical weapons program but also to abandon ambitions for Libya to become a nuclear weapons power.

By February of this year, when destruction was halted by a technical breakdown, the country had destroyed 55% of its declared sulphur mustard and 40% of the precursor chemicals.

‘Eliminate threats’
“Gaddafi did declare quite a lot,” Luhan said, but “it does seem that he did decide to keep some for a rainy day, which, thank goodness, for one reason or another, he either wasn’t able to, or decided not to utilise during the crisis”.

Libya’s eight-month civil war ended last month with the capture and killing of Gaddafi, who had led the country for four decades.

“There’s an urgent time factor here to get on with the destruction, to eliminate the threat of those weapons altogether,” Luhan said.

The OPCW, which is headquartered in The Hague, Netherlands, said last week that it had sent a team of inspectors to Libya for the first time since February.

The inspectors reported that none of Gaddafi’s known chemical arsenal was plundered during the civil war and that “the full stockpile of undestroyed sulphur mustard and precursors remains in place” at a storage depot in south eastern Libya.

Luhan was in New York for a series of meetings including Thursday’s launch of a report by a group focusing on preventing and responding to terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction. — Sapa-AP

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