AL-AJELAT, Libya — Documents showing the shipment of thousands of gas masks and chemical-weapons protection suits to Moammar 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 stabilization 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 neighboring 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 U.S. 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, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international body that works closely with the United Nations.
Gaddafi long ago shut down three facilities where he produced sarin nerve gas and mustard gas.
U.S. officials were skeptical Wednesday about assertions that Gaddafi loyalists were preparing to use chemical weapons — or even possessed them. One senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. intelligence assessments, said Gaddafi’s remaining stocks of mustard agent are thought to be secure. The chemicals, the official said, are stored in bulk containers and are difficult to use.
“Gaddafi did, in fact, destroy many of his most dangerous weapons and never had weaponized sarin or nerve gas,” the official said. “Much of what remains is outdated and difficult to make operational.”
But evidence that chemical weapons were still very much in Gaddafi’s thoughts in recent months has come to light this week.
In huge warehouses in an abandoned military camp on the outskirts of al-Ajelat, a town about 50 miles west of Tripoli, thousands of suits to protect against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons lie stacked in boxes. There are row upon row of boxes of gas masks, as well as flamethrowers, and thousands of antipersonnel and antitank mines, as well as sea mines, all completely unguarded.
Hundreds of large gas canisters are stacked in one warehouse, along with small glass bottles of yellow liquid and large plastic containers marked “shampoo” — but almost certainly not containing hair-care products. Other boxes are marked “Poison,” “Corrosive” and “Explosive.”
But the most worrying evidence has emerged in a nearby office building.
Records found inside show that 2,000 Czech gas masks and 2,000 chemical-protection suits were sent from al-Ajelat to al-Jufrah on July 26.
There also were records of shipments to Sirte from April to June, including 7,500 gas masks, large consignments of decontamination powder and liquid, a dozen pounds of napalm and 20 flamethrowers. All of this was under the orders of the Libyan Defense Ministry’s Chemical Protection Directorate.
The two towns where the deliveries were sent, firmly within Gaddafi’s tribal heartland, remain under the control of regime loyalists.
NATO’s contingency plans
From the start of its military intervention in Libya, NATO has carried out contingency planning and set up early-warning systems in case Gaddafi decided to use chemical weapons, said Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, a think tank in London funded by the British government.
Benotman, the former head of an Islamist insurgent group fighting Gaddafi who renounced violence to become a leading authority on Libya, said he had direct knowledge of this planning.
The West had even strung Gaddafi along with the possibility of a negotiated settlement so he did not turn to chemical weapons in desperation, Benotman said. Now that this carrot has been yanked away, he said, Gaddafi’s next move is harder to predict.