Chilling new evidence of the brutality of Colonel Gadaffi has emerged among the trampled uniforms at a military base in Libya
Libyan rebels are forced to use protective masks as they check Gadaffi’s bases (Francois Mori)
At first sight, the abandoned military base in western Libya appeared to be empty. Army trucks had been left with their doors gaping open in a flat wasteland of red sand and sparse desert grasses.
There were no bodies to be seen in the camp outside Al-Ajaylat, 50 miles west of Tripoli — just uniforms that lay crumpled by the sides of the dirt roadways, as if the soldiers who were stationed here had stripped and fled.
The first warehouse we came to, however, was full — crammed with thousands of wooden crates and boxes piled up to the tin ceiling of a football-pitch-sized cavern. And the contents spilling on to the concrete floor revealed that this was a chemical and biological warfare facility.
I opened some green metal tins in the crates to find black rubber-rimmed gas masks, wrapped in clear plastic. Other crates contained yellow rubber “NBC” suits with grey boots attached — protection against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Cardboard boxes of spare filters marked “Made in Iran” rose to the roof.
In another warehouse were hundreds of flame-throwers with spare fuel canisters, napalm, detonators for explosives, crates of assault rifles, thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines and countless boxed vials of atropine, an antidote to nerve gas.
Canisters stored inside a warehouse are discovered by rebels inside Libya (Francois Mori)
The most worrying discovery was in a corner of a third warehouse. A dark, malodorous liquid leaked out of metal barrels. I held my breath, then tentatively snatched a mouthful of air, thinking of the gas masks in the first warehouse — should I get one? There was no telling what was in the barrels other than that it was corrosive; one was holed from inside. Cleared of dust, the label revealed only a skull and crossbones and the word “poisonous” in Cyrillic script.
Outside, ambulances had been left at skewed angles, including one that seemed to have crashed into a eucalyptus tree. Their interiors were observation chambers designed to test victims of exposure to radiation or chemicals.
Military experts who viewed the contents of the warehouses said they believed that the equipment had defensive and offensive purposes. “An army uses this stuff to protect its troops from an attack by the enemy, or to protect its troops when they are launching an attack,” a British military expert said.
“The equipment would be imperative in both defensive actions and offensive actions.”
Much of the material in the warehouses was outdated but there was evidence that Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, the fugitive Libyan leader ousted by the rebels last month, had not forgotten his stash.
Documents found in a single-storey office building near the camp entrance revealed that the Libyan defence ministry ordered that 2,000 Czech gas masks and 2,000 chemical protection suits be sent on July 26 from the base to Al-Jufrah, a town in the south still under Gadaffi’s control.
Another document recorded shipments to Sirte — Gadaffi’s home town on the coast, which was besieged last week by rebel forces — between April and June, including 7,500 gas masks, decontamination powder and liquid, napalm and flame-throwers.
The discovery increased fears that a cornered Gadaffi might be tempted to resort to unconventional weapons, although most observers believe he no longer has the capability to launch them.
From the start of its military intervention in Libya, Nato has set up early warning systems against such a contingency, according to Noman Benotman, a senior analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, a London think tank.
Benotman, the former head of an anti-Gadaffi Islamist insurgent group, said the dictator’s next move, as the rebel forces close in, was hard to predict. “Now there are no rules, no red lines,” he said.
The Pentagon and an international monitoring organisation have indicated that Gadaffi’s remaining stockpiles are secure, but it is known that more than nine tons of mustard gas remains in Libya. Some of it may be in bases still controlled by Gadaffi loyalists.
There is less of it than there would have been just a few years ago. Gadaffi agreed to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction in 2003 in return for a rapprochement with the West. To demonstrate his commitment, he ordered that 3,300 bombs that could have been used to drop chemical weapons be bulldozed. But the stockpiles of mustard gas have taken longer to eliminate.
An American embassy cable in November 2009, released by WikiLeaks, suggested that Libya was acting more slowly than it had agreed in the hope of securing greater rewards for its co-operation. As a result, 9½ tons of the poison gas was still in Libya when the uprising against Gadaffi began in February, according to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a body that works closely with the United Nations.
The spread of weapons through Libya has become a significant concern. Mortar shells, mines and even missiles have been abandoned by Gadaffi’s fleeing forces at sites the rebels have failed to secure.
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