An international effort with U.S. backing has destroyed the remnants of Libya’s former chemical weapons stockpile in a remote desert setting inside the volatile country, the Defense Department and the international organization overseeing the process said Monday.
The elimination of a final 2 tons of arms loaded with mustard agent puts an end to the country’s roughly 10-year endeavor to destroy its chemicals. That drive, initiated by late strongman Moammar Gadhafi, paused during the civil war and was restarted by the country’s new government.
It comes as the U.S. warns of a growing presence of Islamist militant groups in the north African country, where the central government remains weak and militias operate with little challenge.
“It’s very important that the international community has a full accounting of and has now verifiably destroyed one of the most potent and dangerous materials the Gadhafi regime possessed,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonproliferation advocacy group in the U.S.
News of the destruction, first reported by The New York Times, offers a success story in international efforts to destroy chemical arms at a time when a much larger campaign in Syria has been criticized for failing to meet deadlines. International observers and the U.S. have recently criticized the Syrian regime for the slow pace of its delivery of weapons to its port in Latakia for removal and destruction.
Libya began destroying its 26-ton chemical stockpile in 2010 after the Gadhafi regime acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2004. It was roughly halfway through the process when equipment malfunction and the outbreak of protests that would lead to the civil war halted the process in early 2011.
Before the new government renewed weapons destruction in April of last year, it notified inspectors of the discovery of an additional 2 tons of chemical weapons undeclared by the Gadhafi regime and already loaded into hundreds of munitions, the Arms Control Association said.
The agent was sulfur mustard, and its destruction was made more difficult because it was packed in weapons, including artillery shells, sleeves for rocket launching and several 500-pound bombs, the Times reported.
“You can’t drain chemical agents from munitions, necessarily,” said Kimball. “You need to destroy the munitions.”
Destruction of the remaining cache began in November and was performed by Libyans trained in Europe specifically for the disposal, using tools provided by a U.S. engineering firm contracted by the DOD’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency. The DOD’s Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, traditionally a funding source for the destruction of Cold War-era weapons stockpiles, provided $45 million in funding. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons supervised the destruction.
Other assistance came from Canada and Germany.
According to the Times, the destruction took place in a desert location 400 miles southeast of Tripoli, and it involved “transportable oven technology” to destroy the weapons. The last shell was destroyed on Jan. 26.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons released a statement attributed to Director General Ahmet Uzumcu lauding the destruction. It declined to release further details, citing an event this week to mark the milestone.
“The destruction of these munitions was a major undertaking in arduous, technically challenging circumstances at the remote Ruwagha Chemical Weapon Destruction Facility,” the statement said. “From start to finish, meeting these challenges was the product of close cooperation between Libya, the OPCW Technical Secretariat and other States Parties.”
A DOD spokeswoman credited the Libyan government with completion of the destruction.
“It’s a Libyan-led effort,” Jennifer Elzea said. “They declared their own chemical agents and weapons. And then the international community, led by OPCW, came in to support the Libyan government.”
The OPCW is also leading the campaign to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, which are estimated at more than 1,000 tons. Some 560 tons of the most dangerous chemicals and chemical precursors are to be neutralized at sea by the U.S. ship MV Cape Ray, which left the East Coast last week.
The Cape Ray is scheduled to dock in southern Italy, where it will meet a Danish ship carrying the chemicals from the Syrian port of Latakia. By the beginning of February, the regime had delivered only 4 percent of the chemicals to its port, according to news reports.