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Lingering chemical threat

Alexander Drechsel / jrbFebruary 6, 2014

Libya has announced the destruction of all its chemical weapons. But the country is still sitting on hundreds of tons of chemicals that can be used to produce weapons.

A Libyan flag photo: picture alliance/AP Photo
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

What was found in the Libyan desert between 2011 and 2012 is the stuff of nightmares: 517 artillery shells, eight 250-kilogram bombs and 45 rocket launching sleeves - all rotten and loaded with dangerous sulfur mustard gas.

The chemical weapon attacks mainly the skin though the eyes and lungs can be affected as well. Symptoms appear hours or even days after initial contact. The skin turns red resembling a sunburn then gradually becomes painful and transforms into large skin blisters. The tissue is destroyed to such an extent that the skin heals poorly, if at all. As a result, germs can easily enter the body and cause additional infections.

Officially, Libya is not supposed to have mustard gas munitions any more. The country has been a member of the United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, since 2004. Membership was a step taken by former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to avoid international ostracism.

Meeting contractual commitments

For years, Gadhafi regime produced chemical weapons in three plants. A total of nearly 25 tons of sulfur mustard gas, 3,563 bombs with warfare agents and 1,390 tons of precursor materials are what the Gadhafi regime declared to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

A sign that says "toxic" Photo:picture alliance/Uwe Zucchi
Libya still has chemicals that could produce weaponsImage: picture alliance/Uwe Zucchi

Until the outbreak of civil war in February 2011, Libya met its contractual commitments, re-equipping chemical warfare production facilities and destroying weapons, large amounts of mustard gas and pre-products.

But fighting between rebels and the regime interrupted the process. Only after the fall of Gadhafi did the weapon destruction resume - with some German support. Since 2011, the German government has contributed 5 million euros to the effort.

What remained were the grenades, bombs and rocket parts discovered in the desert. The weapons could pose a major problem if they fell into the wrong hands. A quick and quiet solution was needed, but existing facilities could not be used to destroy the weapons as the munitions were already filled with poison.

"It then took the best part of a year to install a different kind of destruction facility that could get rid of these munitions that were loaded with sulpher mustard and which also were in very poor condition, leaky and very dangerous and toxic," OPCW spokesman Michael Luhan told DW.

Swedish-German joint venture

The United States and Germany financed the new facility and training of Libyan personnel. Last year in late summer, 20 Libyans were trained in Germany and Sweden. The facility was delivered by Dynasafe International, a Swedish-German joint venture.

In an e-mail, Dynasafe wrote that the facility it designed consisted of a gas-tight combustion furnace in which the ammunition is detonated. The gases and munitions fragments are purified again after incineration so that 99 percent of all toxins are destroyed.

The biggest challenge, according to Dynasafe managers Holger Weigel and Thomas Stock, was to construct a mobile facility within seven months. The 50-ton apparatus, installed in four conventional cargo containers, can be quickly assembled and taken apart.

Last grenade in January

For three months, Libyans secretly destroyed mustard gas ammunitions. The final day came on January 26 when the last grenade was destroyed inside the facility at the site of a former depot in Ruwagha.

"The destruction of these munitions was a significant undertaking in laborious and technically challenging circumstances," OPCW Director General Ahmet Uyumcu announced nine days later.

Ahmet Uzumcu Photo: picture-alliance/dpa
Ahmet Uzumcu calls the destruction destruction a 'significant' undertakingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Still, Libya isn't completely free of potential chemical weapons. It still has some chemical precursor materials, dubbed Category 2 chemicals. Nearly 850 tons of precursor materials for chemical weapons remain.

The OPCW's Luhan said the chemicals are stored safely on a military base and monitored by cameras. "These are fairly routine industrial grade chemicals which can be used to make chemical warfare agents as well, and that's why they have to be destroyed," he said.

By the end of 2016, at the latest, Libya aims to be free of chemical weapons and precursor materials - provided no more nasty surprises are discovered in the desert.