News / Africa

US: Libyan Uranium, Chemical Weapons Secure

The U.S. State Department said Thursday it believes that Libyan stockpiles of mustard agent and uranium are secure, despite continuing turmoil there. U.S. officials are less sure about the status of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons that were in Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's military arsenal.  

The Gadhafi government, in a bid to escape terrorism-related sanctions and political isolation, renounced weapons of mass destruction in 2003 and later gave up key components of a nascent nuclear weapons program.

But Libya’s continued to possess large quantities of mustard agent -- a potential component of chemical weapons.  And a stockpile of low-enriched uranium, or yellowcake, has been a matter of international concern as the country descended into conflict.

Nonetheless, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Thursday that the United States is confident, based on assurances from Libya’s Transitional National Council, or TNC, and observations by U.S. intelligence, that Libya's stockpiles of uranium and mustard agent are secure.

She said the yellowcake uranium is under guard at a nuclear research site near Tripoli.

“It is at the Tajoura nuclear research facility.  It is safeguarded there.  We are able, through our national technical means, to assert that we believe it is secure.  And in any case, Libya doesn’t have the means right now to turn yellowcake into anything dangerous,’ Nuland said.

Nuland said that in the process that led to the normalization of relations between the United States and Libya in 2006, the Gadhafi government surrendered nuclear weapons equipment it had obtained from Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network two years earlier.  She said it gave up its last highly-enriched uranium in 2009.

The State Department spokeswoman said Libya still possesses a large quantity of mustard agent that could potentially be used to fill artillery shells and missile warheads.  But she said that, too, is secure at a guarded ammunition complex.

“It is inside massive steel containers within heavy bunkers.  These bunkers were sealed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW.  Our judgment is that they remain secure.  And again, these are not weapon-ready chemicals.  They can’t be converted on a dime [i.e., quickly] and they’re in these massive drums inside a heavy bunker.  And we are able to monitor the security with national technical means,” Nuland said.

“National technical means” commonly refers to spy satellites and other U.S. intelligence assets.

Nuland said the main proliferation concern from Libya involves portable shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, or MANPADS -- short for Man Portable Air Defense System.  The Gadhafi government is thought to have stockpiled perhaps thousands of the weapons, which could be used to shoot down commercial airliners.

Since the Libyan conflict began, U.S. personnel have been working with countries bordering Libya, and more recently with the TNC, to try to detect MANPAD smuggling attempts.

Nuland decried what she called ”fear-mongering” reporting on the subject, but also said that there is no reliable information on the extent of the Libyan MANPAD problem, if there is one.

MANPADS have rarely been linked to terrorist attacks.  One attack was an unsuccessful attempt by an al-Qaida-affiliated group to shoot down an Israeli airliner at the Kenyan port city of Mombassa in 2002.

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