Inspectors with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are investigating claims by the interim government in Libya of missing chemical weapons from a munitions storage site that was once under the control of strongman Muammar Qaddafi.
Late last month, rebels affiliated with the Libyan interim government otherwise known as the National Transitional Council (NTC), uncovered a chemical weapons cache at a remote desert location in the Southern region of that nation.
The site, known as "The Bunker" is 150 miles south of Sirte and north of Wadden.
In a public statement on the discovery, Fathi Bashar, a military spokesman for the NTC was quoted by Russia's Ria NovostiRevolutionary forces have discovered and taken control of a chemical weapons depot of Muammar Qaddafi's army in the town of Jufra
The rebel fighters of the NTC seized control of the site and placed it under their guard.
The chemical weapon in question that is being stored at the site is said to be mustard gas, particularly that of the sulfur variety or sulfur mustard.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was promptly notified of the discovery when rebels seized it two weeks ago. However, the agency says it was only last week that it was notified to the possibility that some of the chemical weapons could be missing.
The OPCW has yet to received an explanation as to the reason behind the week-long delay.
Bob Fairweather of the OPCW released a public statement regarding the possibility of missing chemical munitions at the site
There is this rumour that there’s a door broken down, we’re been in contact with the Libyan national authority. We are checking on the veracity of the story.
According to the OPCW, chemical weapons stockpiles captured so far in Libya are in line with what Muammar Qaddafi's regime had previously declared, and no new weapons have been found.
While the site recently uncovered by NTC rebels may have been previously unknown to them, the OPCW has been aware of it for years.
The site, is reportedly composed of a dozen reinforced storage sheds and protected by two barbed-wire fences. Though there are stocks of sulfur mustard, most of the sheds contain conventional weapons.
When Qaddafi was in power, the site was kept under heavy armed guard 24-hours a day.
Ahmet Uzumcu, the director general and head of the OPCW, said that a team of inspectors will be dispatched to the desert location to destroy the remaining chemical weapons but only "when conditions allow."
At present time it remains too dangerous for the OPCW to send any personnel into Libya. While most of the major fighting is over with the NTC in firm control, there are still remnants of Qaddafi's Army waging battle with rebels in some parts of the country. The OPCW is reportedly adamant about not sending personnel into Libya until security has been established and that nation is stable.
When finally permitted to go, inspectors will also determine if any sulfur mustard has been stolen from the site and by who.
In a public statement on the OPCW website, Director General Uzumcu expressed concerned about the unfinished work the agency has with chemical weapons in Libya but nonetheless expressed his gratitude to the NTC for protecting the munitions site
It is important for the OPCW that these stockpiles are secured and misuse is prevented, and ensuring this remains a national responsibility under the provisions of the Chemical Weapons Convention. From this perspective we welcome the fact that Libyan authorities are taking necessary measures to secure the bunkers.
In 2004, the Qaddafi regime had declared all chemical weapons and storage sites in Libya to the OPCW. Since then, he has been working with inspectors to dismantle his remaining stockpiles of sulfur mustard.
Though the former Libyan dictator and his regime have a dark history that includes state-sponsored terrorism and allegations of human rights violations, he has been lauded by the OPCW for cooperating fully with that agency and and taking a spirited approach towards the dismantling of his chemical weapons program.
Libya's stockpile of sulfur mustard once numbered as much 23 metric tons however inspectors have been able to whittle it down to as little as nine metric tons.
Inspectors were in the process of destroying the remaining stocks of sulfur mustard when they had to evacuate Libya in February to avoid the war that eventually resulted in Qaddafi and his regime being overthrown.
The desert site recently discovered by NTC rebels reportedly holds the remainder of Libya's sulfur mustard.
The Disturbing Discovery And Concerns Of Things To Come
Muhsen al-Gubbi, a member of "The Chain", a NTC special rebel unit tasked with taking possession of and guarding the site told the British-based news publication, The Scotsman that when he and his team happened upon the location two weeks ago, a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) liaison officer was already there to greet them.
The liaison officer handed out protective chemical suits to at least 24 dozen fighters to search the site and ensure that there were no Qaddafi loyalist troops on the premise.
According to Al-Gubbi, the liaison officer reportedly issued a rather ominous warning to him and his team before their search
NATO said to us, Don't touch three sheds, numbers 105, 106, and 107. We went in with masks - we don't know what is inside.
The rebel fighter went on to tell The Scotsman that of the three sheds he and his team were informed not to touch, two of the three sheds had locked doors and an international seal taped to the front. However, the third door stood eerily open.
Al-Gubbi and his team were warned not to enter the third shed with the open door.
NATO told us no one can go inside.
The NTC and NATO fear that troops loyal to Qaddafi may be behind the break-in.
NATO has reportedly summoned additional assets from the NTC which has responded to the request by sending dozens of extra fighters to form a security perimeter around the site for the expressed purpose of guarding it from intruders.
Though NATO has warned rebel fighters to stay away from the site so that they may protect themselves from being contaminated by mustard gas, the actual and principal reason may have much to do with the fact that the U.S. and it's Western allies are still very much distrustful of the very same NTC rebel fighters they assisted in overthrowing the Qaddafi regime.
The Pentagon has confirmed that it has a drone aircraft keeping permanent watch on the facility. Al-Gubbi was reportedly warned by the NATO liaison that he and his fellow rebels will be fired upon by the drone if they made an unauthorized approach to the site.
NTC rebel fighters will maintain a security perimeter at the site until fighting in that nation ceases and the OPCW feels it is safe enough to send inspectors to dismantle the remaining chemical weapons and investigate the reports of missing armaments.
Although NTC rebels searching the site noted that a door to one of three sheds containing sulfur mustard was breached, OPCW inspectors will confirm if there was in fact any theft of the highly lethal substance.
However, the fact that it is still unconfirmed if any stocks of mustard gas are missing has not kept the NTC and NATO from worrying.
NTC rebels are fearful that sulfur mustard was stolen from the shed with the compromised security door and could possibly be used against them on the battlefield, possibly in the besieged areas of Sirte, Beni Walid or along the coast where Qaddafi loyalists continue to wage battle.
NATO officials are reportedly also anxious about the probability that missing mustard gas is in the hands of Qaddafi loyalists and could be used against rebel forces. A far worse case scenario that has NATO worried is the possibility that the mustard gas may make it's way on to the global black market of weapons or into the hands of a terrorist organization like that of al-Qaida who may utilize it in an attack upon a Western nation.
Medical information from the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR) and it's parent organization the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that sulfur mustard can cause skin burns and blisters, especially around sweaty parts of the body. It is more harmful to the skin on hot, humid days, or in tropical climates. Sulfur mustard makes the eyes burn, eyelids swell, and causes you to blink a lot. If sulfur mustard is inhaled, it can cause coughing, bronchitis, and long-term respiratory disease. Exposure to a large amount of sulfur mustard can cause death.