WASHINGTON — Inspectors from the United Nations nuclear agency will soon begin an assessment of the adequacy of security arrangements for thousands of barrels of yellowcake uranium stockpiled in Libya. The inspection comes amid rising anxiety among Western powers and Libya's neighbors at the lawlessness disrupting the transition from dictatorship to democracy since the ouster two years ago of Moammar Gadhafi.
A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, will arrive in the troubled North African country later this month to “verify existing stockpiles and conditions of storage,” the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative to Libya, Tarek Mitri, told the Security Council on Monday.
According to Mr. Mitri, 6,400 barrels of yellowcake uranium are stored in a facility near Sabha, a desert town in the south that has witnessed episodic clashes between Tubu and Abu Seif tribesmen. Libyan intelligence officials say Al Qaida-linked Tuareg fighters fleeing the French intervention in Mali have moved into Libya’s south to set up camps.
The barrels of uranium are under control of a Libyan army battalion, Mitri told the 15-nation UN Security Council. In a closed-door meeting Russian Deputy U.N. Ambassador Alexander Pankin warned of the dangers of the Libyan uranium and also of weapons going astray and falling into the hands of terrorists.
Yellowcake is concentrated natural uranium obtained through the milling and chemical processing of uranium ore. It is a coarse powder and can be used to make nuclear fuel. Anxiety has risen about the security surrounding uranium storage amid rising violence in Libya and clashes between the country’s fledgling army units and hardline Islamist militias that have refused to disband.
Militias at the root of instability
For the past two weeks, Libyan army units have been clashing in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi with members of the Ansar al-Sharia militia, a group suspected by U.S. officials of having been involved in the assault last year on the U.S. consulate that left ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead. The clashes have left a dozen dead and 50 wounded.
Libya’s unruly militias originated in the rebel forces that overthrew with NATO assistance Col. Gadhafi in an eight-month civil war in 2011. Mitri told the Security Council “the weak capacity of state military and policy institutions remains a serious problem.”
During the civil war and in its aftermath Libyan militias looted weapons from Col. Gadhafi’s huge stockpiles and weapons experts say large quantities have been hoarded or sold on the black market.
Arms experts raised the alarm about weapon proliferation from Libya even before the Libyan civil war concluded. Emergencies director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert, says he pleaded with NATO officials and major rebel militia leaders during the uprising to secure Gadhafi’s arsenals before it was too late.
“The proliferation of weapons from the Libya conflict was of a scale much greater than any other modern conflict. We already see the impact of these weapons in places like the Sinai, Gaza, and Mali, and we’ll still be talking about the consequences of this a decade from now, Bouckaert said.”
Earlier this year, Egyptian officials intercepted large caches of weapons smuggled from Libya destined for transfer to rebels in Syria, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula.
Arms trafficking from Libya contributed to the destabilization of northern Mali, where huge inflows of weapons plundered from Gadhafi’s arsenals helped Tuareg mercenaries and jihadist fighters to carve out their own enclave in the heart of the sub-Sahara until France intervened.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) leader who masterminded the seizure of an Algerian natural gas plant in January, bragged in a video posted online about how easy it had been to obtain Libyan weapons. Belmokhtar said his group got the weapons from Gadhafi’s arsenals during the eight-month-long uprising that ousted the late Libyan leader.
Chemical weapons experts will also be travelling to Libya this month to check on the elimination of Libyan toxic gas supplies that Gadhafi had agreed to dispose of before his downfall. Almost nine metric tons of mustard gas reportedly was destroyed earlier this year.
The security challenges facing the Libyan government were underscored Monday when yet another high-ranking security official was gunned down in Sirte, Gadhafi’s hometown. Colonel Ramadan al-Turouk was shot dead in his car. There has been a spike in targeted killings in Libya in recent month mainly of security officials. An American teacher at an international school in Benghazi was shot dead last week while he was jogging.
Last month, Washington said it is planning to train 5,000 to 8,000 Libyan soldiers to help improve security. Other Western countries have agreed also to train Libyan military personnel but analysts say the training could take at least two years.