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Ethiopia Still Seeking Help With Chemical Weapons

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON — Chemical weapons abandoned by two invading forces remain in Ethiopia, the African nation’s president said recently, but it’s not clear if that claim is based on present-day evidence or a strongly held belief left from armed intrusions in the past.

President Girma Woldegiorgis said chemical munitions were stockpiled around the country by the Italian army in the 1930s and by invading Somali forces in 1977.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been helping Ethiopia rid itself of remnants of those weapons with training and technical assistance, Woldegiorgis said last month during an OPCW workshop in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian News Agency reported. However, the country has not submitted a declaration detailing the leftover agents, organization spokesman Peter Kaiser told Global Security Newswire.

Ethiopia signed onto the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993. The treaty requires each member state to declare whether it has any chemical weapons on its territory, no matter the age of the weapons or whom they belong to. That statement is a prerequisite to obtaining OPCW support in disposing of the munitions.

A declaration would allow OPCW personnel to verify and secure chemical weapons, determine whether they are still usable and help formulate a plan for their destruction, Kaiser said.

“All we have at the moment is a statement. Until we have a declaration there is no basis for inspection,” Kaiser said. Lack of a declaration does not necessarily mean munitions have not been found, he added.

A spokesman for the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington said he had no details on the number of chemical weapons remaining in his nation, and did not respond to further requests for information.

There is no doubt that chemical weapons have been used in Ethiopia and other North African nations, experts said. Mustard gas was “definitely” expended during pitched battles between the Allied and Axis forces in World War II, Kaiser said. In the chaos of war, it’s easy to believe that munitions were left behind, he said.

Some experts theorized that Egypt used mustard gas abandoned by British forces during the African nation’s intervention in the Yemeni civil war in the mid-1960s, said Richard Guthrie, head of the chemical and biological warfare project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. However, no African country has formally declared finding another army’s chemical weapons on its soil, Kaiser said.

“Either it is not there or it hasn’t been found or it’s buried … deep,” he said. 

Member states that abandon chemical weapons in other nations are responsible under the treaty for recovering those arms. Several nations say they have been saddled with other countries’ agents. Japan’s plan to incinerate chemical agents in China is the only effort that has made serious inroads at disposing of leftover weapons in another country, Kaiser said (see GSN, April 23).

Ethiopia and Italy have long disputed the existence of chemical munitions remaining from the 1930s invasion of what was then Abyssinia. Reports state the Italian military transported 80,000 tons of the weapons into the country. The African nation’s delegate to the League of Nations indicated Italy made had made 20 “poison gas attacks” by 1936, generally using mustard gas, according to a summary by Terrorismfiles.org.

Ethiopian builders working on a school in 2001 found about 1,400 armaments believed to date to the Italian occupation, but Italy said a technical delegation determined the weapons consisted solely of conventional arms. Italy denies leaving behind any chemical arms (see GSN, Dec. 30, 2002).

Both Kaiser and Guthrie said they had not heard reports of chemical weapons being used during Somalia’s invasion of Ethiopia. Support from Somalia in collecting any weapons is unlikely as the country does not have a permanent government and remains riddled with internal conflict.

OPCW inspectors provided technical assistance last year in Ethiopia in identifying materials that were discovered in the country, Kaiser said. The find was determined not to be chemical weaponry, but he could not release further details of the organization’s work.

The organization later this year will train a group of Ethiopians on identifying and securing chemical weapons, Kaiser said.

Guthrie said he could only theorize why Woldegiorgis would publicly allege the chemical weapons stashes without any concrete proof. The president could be laying the foundation for an Ethiopian declaration to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or he could simply be using the conventional wisdom that chemical weapons were left in his country, Guthrie said.

“It’s a puzzle is all I can say,” he said.

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