Abandoned weapons that were once part of toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi’s arsenal pose an ongoing and serious threat to civilians in Libya, warned a report published by Harvard University on Thursday.
“These weapons may have been abandoned, but their ability to harm civilians remains intact,” said Bonnie Docherty, leader of the research team sent to Libya by Harvard Law School and partner organisation CIVIC.
Weapons left behind after last year’s conflict range from bullets and mortars to torpedoes and surface-to-air missiles, creating an “explosive situation” in a country with a weak central government, the report said.
“The sheer scale of weapons here is shocking,” co-author Nicolette Boehland told AFP in Tripoli.
“Arms are spilling out of hundreds of inadequately secured bunkers. Other weapons have spread across the country to militia stockpiles in urban centers, museums, fields and even homes,” she added.
Threats to civilians include stockpiles at risk of explosion in or near populated areas, civilian curiosity and access to contaminated sites and munitions, plus the harvesting of abandoned weapons for sale or personal use.
Civilians are endangered during the clearance of munition by local communities that lack professional training and the display of weapons as mementos of war, the report found.
In one instance, in the western town of Dafniya, where a brigade kept weapons in some 22 shipping containers, an explosion spread so much dangerous material that it endangered the whole community.
Steve Joubert of JMACT (Joint Mine Action Coordination Team) was quoted as saying that there are “now more weapons than people in Misrata,” in reference to Libya’s third-largest city, which suffered a brutal siege in 2011.
The report noted that the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) and international organisations have shouldered the brunt of the work in clearing ordnance and advising local communities on stockpile management.
Citing UNMAS, Boehland said that as of June, there had been at least 208 casualties, including 54 fatalities, from explosive remnants of war. The toll included 72 children either wounded or killed.
“Children are especially attracted to weapons because they are brightly coloured or look like toys,” she said, noting that the number of casualties is likely to be higher than those documented so far.
The report called on Libya’s newly elected authorities to develop a national strategy to secure leftover ordnance and manage stockpiles. It urged international organisations, notably NATO, to help out.
NATO’s bombings of ammunition bunkers during the conflict last year “spread ordnance across open fields, thus creating a more dangerous and difficult problem,” it said.
The report was released by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic in partnership with CIVIC (Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict) and the Center for American Progress.