Documents showing the shipment of thousands of gas masks and chemical-weapons protection suits to Muammar Gaddafi’s remaining strongholds in the last weeks of his regime raised fresh concerns Wednesday about whether the deposed Libyan leader’s forces could still have access to deadly mustard gas.
The Pentagon and an international monitoring organization have said that Gaddafi’s remaining stockpiles are secure. But more than 11 tons of mustard gas is known to be accumulated in a country that suddenly lacks a strong central authority and where weapons are fast proliferating.
Libyan rebels say they are concerned that Gaddafi holdouts could have access to the mustard gas and could use it in a last-ditch effort to halt advances by the opposition."It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s not beyond Gaddafi," said Mohammed Benrasali, a senior member of Libya’s civilian stabilisation team.
Rebel commanders say the concerns are one reason they are moving cautiously as they try to drive Gaddafi loyalists from his home town of Sirte and a key military headquarters in the desert at al-Jufrah.
Gaddafi has used chemical weapons before, during a war with neighbouring Chad in 1987. But he agreed to dismantle his weapons-of-mass-destruction program in 2003 in return for rapprochement with the West.
To demonstrate his commitment, he ordered the bulldozing of 3,300 artillery shells that could have been used to deliver chemical weapons.
But the stockpiles of mustard gas have taken longer to eliminate. A US Embassy cable in November 2009 released by WikiLeaks suggested that Libya was dragging its feet to maintain leverage and obtain greater compensation.
As a result, 11.25 tons of the poison gas was still in Libya when the uprising against Gaddafi began in February.