WASHINGTON -- Libya's stockpile of chemical warfare materials remains a potential source of proliferation, the U.S. military commander for Africa told reporters on Wednesday (see GSN, Sept. 8).
When fighting broke out in February, Tripoli still held a reported 9.5 metric tons of deteriorating blister agent, less than half of the mustard stockpile that was being eliminated under the auspices of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
The Qadhafi government also possessed in excess of 1,300 tons of chemical-weapon precursor materials. The regime years earlier destroyed thousands of empty aerial munitions that could have been used to disperse the toxic chemicals in an aerial attack.
There is "great, great concern about the security of that material," Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, said during a Defense Writers Group breakfast. "It's not weaponized, it's not easily weaponized, but nonetheless we want to make sure ... the [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] gets back in there and completes the destruction of the remaining materials."
A Pentagon-based spokesman for Africa Command did not respond by deadline to questions submitted yesterday morning about whether the National Transitional Council had requested its assistance in securing the materials.
In addition to chemical materials, Ham said he is concerned about shoulder-fired missiles falling into the hands of al-Shabab, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or Boko Haram, the continent's three major extremist organizations. He also noted that conventional munitions left over by the previous regime could be used in improvised explosive devices.
The combatant commander said that representatives from the U.S. State Department had met with officials from Libya's neighbors to beef up efforts to halt any possible proliferation, including greater intelligence sharing and enhanced border security cooperation.
"They recognize the risk that this runs," according to Ham. "It's been heartening to see a greater degree of collaboration," he added.
Also on Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman told reporters that Washington is cooperating with Tripoli's new leaders to stem possible proliferation of both conventional and unconventional weapons, Reuters reported.
He said that "to the best of our knowledge" the chemical warfare materials "are containerized in bulk form accountable to the OPCW and we believe from monitoring that they are where they are supposed to be."
The blister agent is stored at the Waddan Ammunitions Reservation inside large steel containers within heavy bunkers, a Foggy Bottom spokeswoman said last month.