Stray Weapons and Ammunition: A Threat to Libya and Beyond
The challenges of clearing tonnes of abandoned munitions in one former regime facility in central Libya are an example of the dangers of proliferation in post-revolutionary Libya.
JUFRA - It's a desolate reddish-brown landscape strewn with thousands of bombs, mortars, grenades, rockets, millions of rounds of heavy ammunition, and other projectiles. Set in the middle of the Libyan desert, this is a vast expanse of sand and rock where little moves aside from small teams of local Libyans engaged in systematically clearing weapons from the land.
Sukna is a remote site hidden in Libya's central desert near the town of Houn and about four hours' drive south of Misrata. Its dry climate made it ideal for storage of military ammunitions by the former regime. During the 2011 revolution, NATO warplanes attacked the site and destroyed its 60 plus bunkers and camps used to house ammunition, battle tanks and rockets. Now, with the state struggling to establish its authority, the wide proliferation of weapons and their continuing hazardous storage in easily accessible areas continue to present a significant challenge to the Libyan government and the international community which is assisting in clearance operations.
"What to do with these and other weapons stockpiles are cross-cutting issues that address all priorities, including restructuring the police and the army," said Max Dyck, the outgoing head of the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS).
Some 440 Libyan army bunkers are known to have been destroyed during the 2011 conflict. The majority were knocked out by NATO with some more destroyed by retreating Qadhafi forces. At a cost of $1 million to $1.5 million to build a bunker, their destruction left a costly gap in the Libyan army's ability to secure and safely store its considerable reserves of ammunition and rockets.
"What we saw is like the tip of an iceberg extending across Libya, a huge amount of weapons and unexploded ammunition of all sorts that threatens public security and are at risk of falling into the wrong hands," said Michael Smith, the director of the UN Support Mission in Libya's Security Sector Advisory and Coordination Division.
The UN is working with the Libyan armed forces, military councils and some local revolutionary brigades to monitor and advise on the accounting, safe storage and control of arms and ammunition, the registering of weapons, and the clearance of explosive remnants of war. But time delays, funding shortfalls and the time-consuming process of building up trust with locals, have resulted, more than two years after the revolution, in large amounts of unguarded weapons that pose a proliferation threat.
"Already weapons have seeped out and gone to other conflict zones," said Smith during a field visit to the ammunition site, which is a 20-minute drive from the town of Houn. "The presence of arms inside homes is a big issue, but imagine the scale of the problem when you take into account Houn and replicate it across the country."
As he spoke, workers assigned to clearing duty were busy dividing up the area into blocks before starting to clear it one by one. Large amounts of ammunitions littered the ground. One worker raked the soil, some installed poles with red flags to identify hazardous areas while others packed shells on the ground like logs or loaded them onto waiting pickup trucks.
One way of dealing with still active weapons is to store them in safe and controlled environments. In Misrata, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting, UNMAS has been advising on the construction of two storage facilities for ammunition and weapons – one directly funded by the office of the Chief of the Army General Staff, Major-General Yousef Mangush, the other paid for by Switzerland. Affiliated NGOs have also been offering basic training on ammunition management, accounting and firefighting.
In his report to the UN Security Council on the UN Support Mission in Libya (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.
"A lot of the work that we do is community-based micro-projects which support local efforts and give more bang for limited buck," said Dyck. "A US$50,000 storage project in Tarhouna allowed them to recover $500 million worth of Navy ammunition and put it into storage."
More than 200,000 explosive remnants of war were cleared from both residential and military facilities in 2012. A lot more remain in loosely-guarded former regime depots or in private residences.
"This makes Libya potentially the largest disarmament program in the world," said Smith. "It is both a threat, if they're not cleared up and stored, and an opportunity."
Slow progress on the ground links up with concerns over the security of Libya's border. With the Mali conflict ongoing, the question remains whether the flow of the weapons can be staunched before Libya's vagrant weapons appear in larger number in nearby conflicts.