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Libya’s cities left ‘re-contaminated’ by months of fighting, warn landmine clearance experts

The warning about hazardous military hardware – often referred to by the acronym UXO – came during a meeting of mine action experts at the UN in Geneva.

It follows months of conflict in the suburbs of Tripoli between the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (or GNA) and the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by commander Khalifa Haftar, who laid siege to the capital last April.

At UN-led talks earlier this month between the two sides aiming to secure a lasting ceasefire, UN negotiator Ghassan Salamé noted that there were at least 20 million “pieces of ordnance” in Libya.

“Expenditure of ordnance and the threat posed by explosive remnants of war has increased, and sadly, many of the areas that were previously cleared of UXO have now been re-contaminated as a result of the fighting”, said Bob Seddon, a Threat Mitigation Officer with UNMAS in Libya.

“Libya has the world’s largest uncontrolled ammunitions stockpile”, he added. “It is estimated that there are between 150,000 to 200,000 tonnes of uncontrolled munitions across Libya.”

Weapons stores abandoned

This vast – and in some cases abandoned – weapons store has created massive insecurity inside the country and beyond its borders.

“It has taken the Libyan security forces out of the war in terms of the fight against Al Qaeda and Daesh (ISIL) in the south of the country,” Mr. Seddon explained, on the sidelines of the United Nations International Meeting of Mine Action National Directors and UN Advisers.

“It’s causing a problem right across Africa now”, he said, noting that he had never seen such high levels of weapons contamination in his 40-year career.

With the number of internally displaced in Libya estimated at around 343,000 last year – an 80 per cent increase on 2018 – the UNMAS expert insisted that “it’s the Libyan people that are facing the full impact” of protracted insecurity that has followed the overthrow of former President Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011.

So far this year, at least 647 civilians have been killed or injured in Libya, the majority in Tripoli, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Because of the current hostilities, only a limited number of UNMAS staff remain active in Libya.

Broader approach

An important part of UNMAS’s work also involves a much broader approach to mine and improvised explosive device (IED) awareness, than simply taking out of the ground.

“To be really effective in dealing with IEDs …it’s not just about digging up the IEDs that have been laid,” Mr. Seddon said. “It requires effective police forces, effective responses to IED incidents, good forensics..It’s not just a military problem, it’s a police problem too.”

He added: “I don’t see the IED threat diminishing at any stage, if anything, it will increase because it’s such an effective form of attack. If you look at those States that have been effective in dealing with IEDs, they’ve taken this broader approach.”

UN staff obstructed

In a related development, the UN Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) announced that staff were no longer able to land in Libya, after being denied permission by the LNA.

“The United Nations in Libya regrets that its regular flights, which transport its staff to and from Libya, are not being granted permission by the LNA to land in Libya”, UNSMIL said in a statement, noting that this “has been repeated on several occasions in the past weeks”.

Preventing UN flights from travelling in and out of Libya “will severely hinder its humanitarian and good offices effort at a time when all its staff are working relentlessly to push forward the ongoing three-track intra-Libyan dialogue and to provide the much-needed humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable conflict-affect civilians”, the statement continued.

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