Securing Ammunition in Libya, A Step Towards Improving Public Safety

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15 Jul 2013

Securing Ammunition in Libya, A Step Towards Improving Public Safety

MISRATA - Building an ammunition shelter may not come across as a priority for many Libyans, who face the challenges of a post-revolution transitional period buffeted by political divisions, armed clashes as well as disruptions in the country's major lifeline in oil production.

But for the cities and towns where arms and ammunition are stashed in residential neighbourhoods and in unsafe and unsecure environment, setting up a secure ammunition storage site by the United Nations and the Swiss Government matters, although it serves as an interim solution for an acute problem in a country awash with weapons and unsecured munitions from the 2011 conflict.

A shot of the nearly finished ammunition shelter in Misrate (UNMAS photo)

On 2 July, the first temporary ammunition shelter of its kind in post-revolutionary Libya was inaugurated in Misrata, the western coastal city that took the brunt of the wrath of Gadhafi's forces during the 2011 revolution.

"We worked together with the United nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) team since March 2011, we managed to reduce the threat of Mines and Explosives Remnants of War (ERW) on the civilian population", stated Colonel Youssef Abdel Jawad, the representative of the Libyan Army Chief of General Staff office.

"The size of the problem is very big; it needs continuous efforts in order to remove the threat of Mines and ERW, as well as the unsecured ammunitions and weapons. We highly appreciate the support from the United Nations in this regards", he added.

"This ceremony is humble in its appearance but important in its significance, and sends a message to those responsible for rebuilding Libya of the importance of safeguarding its future," said Colonel Mohamed Terjuman from the Libyan Army Engineers and the responsible for Mine Action operations in Misrata.

With the civilian population's wellbeing a priority, the United Nations moved to assist the Libyans in the area of ammunition management, just as it is engaged in the form of offering training and advice in other security sector components as well as on the political, human rights, rule of law, transitional justice and public information levels.

"Our priority is public safety," Paul Heslop, Chief of Program Planning and Operations from UNMAS, New York, said in relevance to the inauguration of the temporary ammunition storage location in Misrata.

The UN Mine Action Service's chief of operations, Paul Heslop, addresses remarks at the inauguration of a Swiss-funded ammunition storage facility in Misrata. (Iason Athanasiadis/UNSMIL)

"If we do nothing, then the danger of explosions inside towns becomes greater," he added, explaining the merits of moving ammunition stocks currently held in private homes and shops in populated areas to more remote locations.

In his report to the UN Security Council on UNSMIL in February 2013, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the unsecured ammunition, explosive remnants of war and stockpiled weapons, including small arms, light and chemical weapons and materiel, continue to pose a serious risk to the Libyan people and to regional security. He said the UN continued to be active in training and ammunition management, search awareness and explosive ordnance disposal with the Ministries of Defence and Interior.

The importance of ammunition management was stressed again in Resolution 2095 (March 2013), which extended the mandate of UNSMIL. Among its tasks, the Mission was mandated to support Libyan efforts to counter illicit proliferation of arms and related materiel, in particular heavy and light weapons, small arms and man-portable surface-to-air missiles, including through the development of a coordinated strategy in this regard, to clear explosive remnants of war, conduct demining programmes and conventional munitions disposal, secure and manage Libya's borders, and implement international conventions on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and materials, in coordination with the relevant UN agencies, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and international and regional partners.

The $200,000 facility inaugurated in Misrata was built according to a template designed and constructed to international standards under Libyan and UN supervision and funded by the Swiss Government. The facility, split into two locations each capable of storing 200 tons of explosive materiel, features reinforced cement roofs and is encircled by a sand berm. Another facility is currently under construction under the supervision of the Army Chief of General Staff.

"Every garrison needs to have a safe storage facility for everything from small arms to high explosives," said UNMAS' Heslop. "Otherwise, you have cases like the Brazzaville (Congo) explosions where over 200 people were killed, 2,000 injured and 20,000 displaced."

As in Congo, there have been several dangerous and uncontrolled detonations in the past two years at untended ammunition dumps in Libya. The most recent major conflagration occurred in the northern coastline city of Brega in May. The Libyan Army's ammunition is of mostly Russian origin and is reaching the end of its shelf life, experts believe. This coincides with a globally rising trend in uncontrolled explosions as ammunition stocks age.

In The Brazzaville case, the cost of cleanup "was ten times more than to build a safe storage facility in the first place," Heslop added.

He also drew a line on where the ammunition and weapons management support goes, belying detractors' claims that such measures may serve only to strengthen the capacity of illegitimate armed groups to further challenge the State.

"We've done this work only for armed groups that have legitimacy with the Libyan Government," Heslop said, and where public safety is assessed to be a priority.

"Many other areas in Libya suffer from bad storage," Terjuman, of the Libyan Army Engineers, acknowledged in his address as UN, Swiss and Libyan military and local officials listened. "We ask God to support us in resolving these issues."

The ammunition shelter was funded by the Swiss government and supported by the UN (Iason Athanasiadis/UNSMIL)

UNMAS is currently looking for funding to build upon this first step by implementing a sustainable and environmentally sound, three-step way of disposing ammunition through clearing infected territories, destroying expired munitions, reclaiming materials that can be recycled and finally building secure storage facilities.
"It's not for us coming from outside to tell Libyans how to solve their problems," said Heslop of UNMAS. "We're looking for a partnership with Libyans and to support Libyan solutions."

UNMAS has said that there was an $19.7 million shortfall in the 2013 budget covering 25 Mine Action, Arms Control and Ammunition Management projects for Libya. UNMAS appealed to the Libyans and the international community to make up for the funding shortfall to support the Libyan Government address the threat of explosive remnants of war, illicit arms proliferation and unsecured ammunition storage areas.

"Remarkable progress has been made in freeing essential infrastructure and agricultural lands from explosive remnants of war but concerted arms and ammunition management efforts are required to ensuring the long term security of Libya and its neighbors," senior UNMAS official in Libya, Diek Engelbrecht, said in launching the 2013 mid-year review of the Libya Portfolio at 7 July event at the Belgian Embassy.