Even as the international effort to destroy Syria’s vast chemical weapons stockpile lags behind schedule, a similar US-backed campaign carried out under a cloak of secrecy ended successfully last week in another strife-torn country, Libya.
Over the past three months, the US and Libya have discreetly destroyed what both sides say were the last remnants of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s lethal arsenal of chemical arms.
They used a transportable oven technology to destroy hundreds of bombs and artillery rounds filled with a deadly mustard agent that US officials had feared could fall into the hands of terrorists.
The effort has helped inspire the use of the technology in the much bigger disposal plan in Syria.
Since November last year, Libyan contractors trained in Germany and Sweden have worked in hazmat suits at a tightly guarded site in a remote corner of the Libyan desert, racing to destroy the weapons in a region where extremists are gaining greater influence.
The last artillery shell was destroyed on Jan. 26, officials said.
As Libya’s weak central government grapples with turmoil and unrest, while kidnappings and assassinations of military and police officers accelerate in the country’s east, US and international weapons specialists hailed the destruction of the Libyan stockpile as a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy security environment.
“It’s a big breakthrough,” said Paul Walker, an arms control expert with environmental group Green Cross International who has participated in efforts to demilitarize the US’ and Russia’s chemical weapons stockpiles since the 1990s.
“Even though Libya’s chemical stockpile was relatively small, the effort to destroy it was very difficult because of weather, geography and because it’s a dangerous area with warring tribes, increasing the risks of theft and diversion,” he said.
Libya’s last 2 tonnes of chemical weapons were dwarfed by the 1,300 tonnes Syria has agreed to destroy, but US and international arms experts say the need for easily transportable and efficient technology to wipe out the Libyan arms became a model for the Syria program.
For Libya’s fragile transitional government, such collaboration with the West on security matters is a delicate issue. It gives the country’s leaders desperately needed assistance to defuse internal threats, but also risks accusations of compromising national sovereignty.
The disposal of the weapons closes a chapter that Qaddafi opened in early 2004, when his government turned over a vast cache of nuclear technology and chemical stockpiles to the US, Britain and international nuclear inspectors.
At the time, Libya declared for destruction 24.7 tonnes of sulfur mustard, a syrupy liquid that when loaded into bombs or artillery shells and exploded creates a toxic mist that penetrates clothing, burns and blisters exposed skin, and can kill with large doses or if left untreated.
Libya had destroyed about half these stocks when civil war broke out in 2011. Western spy agencies closely monitored the destruction site in the Libyan desert to ensure the stockpiles were not pilfered by insurgents.
When the new government took control in Tripoli that fall, it signaled its intent to finish the job. Libyan officials surprised Western inspectors by announcing the discovery in November 2011 and February 2012 of two hidden caches, or nearly 2 tonnes, of mustard agents that had not been declared, bringing the total declared amount of chemical arms to 26.3 tonnes.