x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Who controls Qaddafi's weapons stockpiles?

US fears arms could be used for last stand or fall into terrorist hands

Kimberly Dozier and Douglas Birch

WASHINGTON //US intelligence and military authorities fear Col Muammar Qaddafi will stage a last stand with the Libyan government's weapons stockpiles, amid growing concern over who has control of them.

There are also worries that the deadly chemicals, raw nuclear material and 30,000 shoulder-fired rockets could fall into the hands of Al Qaeda or other terrorists in the chaos of Col Qaddafi's downfall, or even after a rebel victory was assured.

The material was left under Col Qaddafi's control by a US-backed disarmament pact.

The main stockpile of mustard gas and other chemicals, stored in corroding drums, is at a site south-east of Tripoli. Mustard gas can cause severe blistering and death.

A cache of hundreds of tonnes of raw uranium yellowcake is stored at a small nuclear facility east of the capital.

Weapons demolition teams hired by the US state department have found and destroyed some of the anti-aircraft rocket systems in parts of the country held by rebels.

US and allied officials say chemical and nuclear stockpiles appear to be still under the control of the Libyan government, despite rebel military advances into the capital.

They hope Col Qaddafi's increasingly desperate loyalists will adhere to international agreements not to use or move the material.

The state department has also sent experts to Libya to confer with rebel leaders and the country's neighbours about abiding by those agreements, and increasing border security to stop weapons being smuggled out.

The state department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said on Tuesday that the US was working to ensure "the governing forces in Libya have full command and control of any WMD [weapon of mass destruction] or any security assets that the state might have had".

Jamie F Mannina, the spokesman for the state department's bureau of arms control, verification and compliance, said Libya's known chemical weapons storage centres have been monitored since the start of the civil war.

But questions are being asked as to whether Nato has enough people on the ground to make sure the material remains secure if Libyan security forces flee their posts.

Nato's decision to limit its participation in the conflict has kept its investment in troops and finance to a minimum. But that has not helped the cause of non-proliferation.

With the battle for the capital, Tripoli, still unfolding, military advisers from Britain, France, Italy and Qatar are feeding intelligence to the rebels and Nato bombers on the whereabouts of the enemy.

That has left US intelligence relying primarily on military drone, satellite and spy plane reports to track Col Qaddafi's arsenal.

"No one seems clear" how many of the anti-aircraft rockets and other stockpiles remain after six months of pounding by air strikes, a US official said.

The British Embassy spokesman Hetty Crist said authorities were concerned about the security of 11 tonnes of mustard gas.

Ms Crist said the Libyan stocks were "under guard in secure and remote locations" and could not be used easily for warfare because they had not been adapted for use as weapons.

Despite dismantling much of his nuclear programme after a deal with the Bush administration, Col Qaddafi has enough weaponry, if he can reach it, to try to sell to militants.

The most pressing matter is to ensure the mustard gas does not end up on the black market or with terrorists. Stored in canisters that showed signs of corrosion during a 2006 visit by US officials, the chemicals could be easily moved.

Paul Walker of the environmental group Global Green, which closely monitors chemical weapons, said he had heard no evidence that anyone had tried to divert the chemicals.

"Any major action such as trucks pulling up or major troop movements, that would be known pretty quickly and action such as a Nato air strike could be taken fairly quickly," Mr Walker said.

* Associated Press