C.J. Chivers / New York Times – 2012-06-15 21:57:08
(June 15, 2012) — The death of an Estonian explosive-ordnance disposal technician in Libya this spring illustrates the continuing problem of loose weapons stockpiles almost a year after Moammar Khadafy was driven from power.
The technician, Kaido Keerdo, died in March while examining unexploded munitions scattered near a police compound and checkpoint in Ad Dafniyah as part of his work for the nongovernmental group Danish Church Aid.
The checkpoint had been fought over by rival Libyan militias three nights before. The groups were quarreling over access to 22 shipping containers of Khadafy-era munitions, according to the aid group’s investigation, the findings of which were described this week to the New York Times.
One of the containers was struck during the fighting and caught fire. The explosion that followed ruptured at least 11 containers, heaving into the air a poorly stored collection of grenades, rockets and mortar rounds, some of which landed almost 500 yards away.
The munitions, once seen by Libya’s armed groups as instruments for breaking free from internal repression and making the country safe, were then scattered near houses, a mosque and a school along Libya’s main coastal road. The inadequately trained militias and ad hoc police officers had stored rockets and shells with fuses inserted, a configuration that compounded their dangers.
Among this refuse were 122-millimeter rockets containing Type 84 land mines, one of the most volatile weapons in Libya’s prewar stocks. Keerdo, a demining team leader, was surveying the police compound and apparently knelt near one of these rockets. At least one mine exploded, killing him instantly.
The accident was among the latest to underscore the problems related to Libya’s huge stockpiles of weapons.
Such accidents are not the only risk. The loose weapons are fuel for crime and violence between competing militias and against foreigners. In recent days, a U.S. consulate and a British diplomatic car have been attacked. And persistent reports of smuggling – to dealers, insurgents or terrorists in Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Lebanon, Mali, Syria, Tunisia, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere – have circulated since last year.
The weapons – poorly secured, unsecured or already smuggled out of the country – were among the many confounding inheritances of Libya’s new authorities, who have yet to coalesce into a central government. Libya is also dotted with minefields remaining from World War II and as many as 303 large, high-explosive duds from NATO’s air-to-ground campaign.
The problems are so extensive, according to the United Nations, that they have not been quantified.
No one yet knows how much modern ordnance Libya acquired from the 1950s, when King Idris began expanding what was then the country’s tiny military, or in the decades afterward, as Khadafy’s security structure swelled in size and shopped for arms throughout the world. And no one knows how much remains, how much is scattered next to bunkers that NATO bombed, and how much found its way into makeshift depots, like the one in Ad Dafniyah.
“There just haven’t been enough people and assets to go everywhere and look at everything,” said Max Dyck, the program manager for the U.N. Mine Action Service in Libya.
Several nongovernmental organizations, working with the United Nations, have been destroying mines and ordnance since last year. In all, they have cleared 82 schools and nearly 3,000 houses and removed or destroyed more than 233,000 mines and pieces of ordnance through late May.
They have also been holding public awareness workshops, training Libyan deminers and hoping to begin work on the 303 confirmed or possible duds that NATO informed the United Nations this year that its warplanes had dropped.
With these many dangers still present, international aid groups have documented 109 accidents related to mines and unexploded ordnance since the war began last year. The accidents wounded 204 people, at least a quarter of them fatally, according to U.N. data.
But the data probably significantly understate the number of accidents, Dyck said.
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