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Questions Surround Qadhafi Chemical Arms Stash

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

Former Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi, shown in March 2008. The United States wants to identify the origin of chemical warfare materials never declared by Qadhafi's government before its fall in 2011 (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser). Former Libyan dictator Muammar Qadhafi, shown in March 2008. The United States wants to identify the origin of chemical warfare materials never declared by Qadhafi's government before its fall in 2011 (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser).

WASHINGTON -- The origin of a cache of chemical weapons found in Libya after the fall of the Qadhafi regime remains a mystery that must be resolved, according to U.S. officials.

While the Obama administration is not naming names, one issue expert said Iran and Syria might be the targets of U.S. scrutiny. Reports from late 2011 also indicated that Tehran might have provided the government in Tripoli with hundreds of chemical shells before the 2011 Libyan revolution.

Libya joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2004 and acknowledged holding 24.7 metric tons of sulfur mustard blister agent in bulk containers, 1,390 metric tons of precursor materials, and 3,563 empty munitions that could have been used to carry the lethal material. The nation also declared that it had three production sites.

Then-dictator Muammar Qadhafi's regime moved to destroy the stockpile, eliminating the declared weapons and converting or dismantling the former manufacturing plants. A technical malfunction halted work at a mobile mustard agent disposal plant shortly before the uprising that began in February 2011 and led to the overthrow of the Libyan government and Qadhafi's death.

In the aftermath, the new leadership in Tripoli in late 2011 and early 2012 declared an additional amount of chemical arms discovered at two locations. The total stocks of declared mustard agent now stand at 26.3 metric tons, suggesting that nearly 2 tons of additional material was discovered. Much of that was held in artillery shells, according to the U.S. State Department.

“The United States, like other states parties, remains concerned about the origin of these chemical weapons stocks,” U.S. Ambassador Robert Mikulak said during a November meeting of member nations to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the entity charged with monitoring compliance with the convention.

He indicated that the OPCW Technical Secretariat was investigating the matter and would deliver findings to the organization’s 41-nation Executive Council and its full membership on “where the hidden chemical weapons, and the chemical agent they contain, were produced.”

“The origin of these additional weapons is unclear both to the Libyan government and to the OPCW and both are looking into this important question,” a U.S. State Department official said last week in an e-mailed statement to Global Security Newswire.

The official, who asked to remain anonymous in discussing the sensitive topic, said further information was not available and referred further questions to the Hague, Netherlands-based nonproliferation organization. Asked about Mikulak’s comments, an OPCW spokesman directed GSN to statements made during the recent member nations’ meeting.

Libya offered a formal statement at the meeting, but the document was not included alongside the dozens of national statements posted on the OPCW website. Tripoli’s embassy in Washington did not answer questions submitted on the matter.

Ahmet Üzümcü, OPCW director general, in comments to delegates last month said only that the Executive Council appreciates Libya’s pledge to provide clarity as needed on its updated declaration and that the organization “is still in the process of clarifying details related to these declarations.”

“This is a complete anomaly. I think for the current leadership, they’re probably at a loss to explain that. Or they know it and are reluctant to explain,” said Jean Pascal Zanders, a nonproliferation specialist with the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies.

The status of Libya’s chemical holdings has been greatly overshadowed by rising fears that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime might use its much-larger arsenal of lethal substances against opposition forces or civilians in the devastating civil war there.

The number of Libyan weapons in question -- said to encompass 517 artillery shells and eight bombs -- is “too small for a militarily relevant capacity,” Zanders said.

Still, the matter should not be ignored, argued chemical disarmament expert Paul Walker. He noted that this appears to be the first instance in which an OPCW member state had willingly misled the organization about its chemical arms capacities.

Albania joined the convention in 1994 and declared a small stock of mustard agent and other materials nearly a decade later. However, the government seemingly had not been aware of the stockpile’s existence, said Walker, environmental security and sustainability director for Global Green USA.

“It really didn’t know the stockpile was even there, apparently,” he said.

Walker suggested the former Libyan regime's misstatement, by contrast, was intentional. “Qadhafi really knew that he had an additional chemical weapons stockpile that he was hiding from the OPCW,” he said.

Companies in 12 nations in the West and beyond are believed to have contributed to Libya’s chemical arms buildup in past decades, according to expert analyses. Japan and the former West Germany were high on the list of material and technology providers, while Walker also cited nations including Belgium, China, Iran, Syria and the United Kingdom.

“The suspicion would be maybe he’s referring to Iran or Syria,” he said of Mikulak’s comments.

Chances are that precursor materials would have been provided, rather than full warfare agents that would be too dangerous to ship, he said. That could also apply to the munitions.

“If a CWC state party supplied Libya with precursor chemicals and/or technology, it would be a serious violation of the convention,” he wrote in an e-mailed follow-up to the interview.

Mikulak was also likely highlighting the need for broader national implementation of export and import rules to curb the proliferation of materials covered by the CWC regime, Walker said.

The new Libyan government has pledged to resume disposal operations by next March and to complete operations in December 2016, according to OPCW information. Given that the newly declared mustard agent is weaponized, Tripoli might have to use technology other than the neutralization process employed by the Qadhafi government, Walker said.

The post-revolution find keeps open the question of whether the full scope of Libya’s chemical arsenal is yet known, experts said.

“There still remains a question I think as to whether his whole stockpile is simply bulk and weaponized mustard or whether there’s something more sophisticated there and more dangerous,” Walker said.

Added Zanders: “More may come out. I can’t predict whether it will or not. But if the regime remains committed to the treaty, they’ll report it, and the international community will take the necessary decisions in order to ensure speedy, verified destruction of those weapon holdings.”

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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