What the violence in Libya means for mine action

The current conflict in Libya has effectively halted all mine action in Libya, one of the most mine-affected countries in the world.  When the Gaddhafi regime fell three years ago, mine action operators were quick to start up operations to clear the landmines laid during the civil war and try to secure the enormous stockpiles of weaponry accumulated by Gaddhafi over the years.  There was even some hope that Libya would explore accession to the Mine Ban Treaty.  Even before the conflict began there were issues of funding in the mine action sector and with the outbreak of conflict across Libya, it may be some time before the landmine threat is properly and adequately addressed.

In addition, when Zintan militias associated General Khalifa Haftar withdrew the Tripoli international airport and control shifted to militias from Misrata associated with some Islamist groups, the Misratan militias reported discovering landmines and booby traps left by Haftar’s forces.  Dawn of Libya militia members have been clearing the mines and reported several casualties on social media.  The National Transition Council of Libya renounced the use of mines and while Libya has not joined the Mine Ban Treaty, any new use of landmines in worrying in a country already severely polluted by these weapons.


The Current Conflict (s)

Since May when Haftar, a former Libyan army general, launched an offensive against Islamist militias in the western Libyan city of Benghazi, the security situation in Libya has nearly completely deteriorated.  Hopes were high for June elections to bring stability to the country, but polling places were attacked, some were never opened, and barely a tenth of eligible voters cast their ballots (AFP; Washington Post). Those that did vote voted for a secular government that has since fled the capitol of Tripoli for the city of Tobruk near the Egyptian border.  The previous government, dominated by Islamists and elected in 2012, rejected the election outcome and continued to meet in Tripoli and claimed to be the legitimate government of the country (Washington Post) until it finally resigned, more than two months after elections (Reuters).

There is no easy narrative for the conflict that has erupted. It’s not Islamists versus secularists; it’s not one insurgency, it’s many.  As one observer described it, “Libya doesn’t have one front line, it has twenty” (Deutche Welle).  It’s also not strictly a domestic conflict with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates conducting airstrikes against some Islamist forces; Qatar and Turkey have been accused of supporting Islamists who may or may not be the same as the Islamists that Egypt and the Emirates are worried about.  Of course you have Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb thrown in for good measure (Washington Post) and the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas have been called war crimes (Amnesty International).  On top of all of that, Libya has had to withdraw from hosting the 2017 African Cup of Nations football tournament because the security situation precludes the construction of the necessary infrastructure to support a major international event (Washington Post).

In response to the violence, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) evacuated its staff along with the embassies of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Canada (UNSMIL; Newsweek; Canadian Press; Financial Times; Herald Scotland).  With the departures of embassy staff, many international NGOs have also withdrawn their staff but some humanitarian organizations remain with limited activities (IRIN News).

However, despite the violence, the state-run National Oil Corporation (and if you’ve read the last two paragraphs, your first question should be, “Which state?”) recently announced the first oil exports in almost a year and confirmed daily production of 650,000 barrels of oil (Washington Post; Libya Herald).  Other than the oil exports, the other glimmer of hope is the fact that some two million Egyptians, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese and several thousand Filipinos have chosen to remain in Libya believing that the situation will improve.  These migrants, in Libya for employment and vital to industries like health care, may serve as a barometer for the country in the coming months: if they leave after enduring the recent violence, the situation is likely worsening (Libya Herald).


The Mine Action Situation in Libya

Fortunately, unlike the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and Gaza which have pushed the Libya conflict off the front pages, there have been no confirmed reports of landmine use in Libya (but see below) and some observers have suggested that Islamist fighters may opt to use landmines and improvised explosive devices if their strongholds are surrounded (International Affairs Review). Libya already had an enormous landmine problem before the conflict began and while the current conflict has not yet worsened the situation, it has halted the very important work of demining and mine-risk education which is so needed in Libya.

According to a report by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard University’s law school, the sheer quantity of abandoned ordnance in Libya surprised experts who had addressed abandoned ordnance stockpiles in other countries.  In terms of landmine contamination, Libya experienced several phases of landmine use beginning in World War II, and landmines are present along Libya’s borders with Egypt, Tunisia and Chad.  During the 2011 civil war, both sides used landmines although the rebels quickly abandoned their use; the Gaddhafi regime’s use of landmines was much more extensive and enthusiastic (The Monitor).

In the immediate aftermath of the civil war, significant steps were taken to address the landmine situation.  Thousands of landmines were destroyed from stockpiles and 27 landmine clearance teams were working across the country (Human Rights Watch). Despite this early interest in and support for landmine clearance in post-Gaddhafi Libya, less than two years into the new state’s existence, funding for mine action was already drying up.  More than 250 Libyans were killed or injured by landmines and explosive remnants of war in that period and funding shortfalls threatened the efforts of mine action operators to safely secure the abandoned ordnance and clear the unknown numbers of ERW.  Only half of the funds sought for work in 2013 were obtained (IRIN News) and earlier this year UNSMIL launched a new initiative to try and raise an additional US $17 million for the planned activities (UNSMIL).

In spite of the deteriorating security situation in Libya earlier this summer, much progress was still being made with the resources at hand. In June UNSMIL handed over an ammunition storage bunker to the Zintan city authorities and destroyed 52 metric tonnes of abandoned ordnance in central Libya, bringing the total amount of ordnance destroyed to over 1,000 metric tonnes from central Libya alone with more ordnance still to be destroyed (UNSMIL).


The Impact of the Conflict on Mine Action in Libya

All of the mine action operators I heard from have suspended their activities and with the Libyan Mine Action Center, the national coordinating authority for mine action, also suspending its activities, it is unlikely any mine action work, other than emergency clearance is continuing as of this writing.

In the recent battle for the Tripoli Airport, militias from Misrata and Libya Dawn defeated militias from Zintan to seize the airport despite Emirati airstrikes against the Misratans.  In the battles for the airport, which have raged since mid-July, militias have used “unguided surface-to-air missiles, mortar rounds, tanks, and anti-aircraft machine guns” and checkpoints have been set up with rocket launchers and machine guns around the airport (Middle East Eye).  While no confirmed reports of landmine use in the battles for the airport have been found, social media messages describe efforts to clear mines and booby traps left by the Zintan militias when they fled the airport.  One posting reported 5 persons have been injured in the clearance work.

Elsewhere in Libya, the minefields along the borders with Chad, Egypt and Tunisia will likely remain untouched for some time.  These minefields threaten the lives of those trying to flee the violence in Libya.  In the cities, emergency clearance work conducted by explosive ordnance teams associated with various militias will be the norm until the security situation has stabilized.  At that time the international operators and the Libyan Mine Action Center can re-start mine clearance operations, but that may be some time away.  As mentioned above, the sheer scale of contamination in Libya is immense and with more unexploded ordnance being added to the existing contamination, the work to clear Libya will take years.

In 2011 and 2012, there was hope that the landmine issue would be addressed promptly and comprehensively.  The recent fighting diminishes that hope but does not extinguish it.
Michael P. Moore

August 31, 2014

Moe (at) landminesinafrica.org

The Month in Mines, July 2014

In case anyone was expecting a lull in mine action news following the Maputo Review Conference, July’s stories from the continent confirm that despite the positive news and outcomes from the Conference, landmines continue to take lives.



They must have known that they were in for a long, protracted struggle because the Nigerian Police Forces have developed and unveiled a new landmine-proof vehicle for use in combating insurgents (All Africa).  Too late to #bringbackourgirls, but maybe the Nigerian police can prevent future kidnappings.



Three different landmine incidents occurred in the first week of July in the restive Mount Chaambi area along the Algerian border, killing at least four people and wounding six.  In the first incident, four soldiers and two guardsmen were injured by a landmine when their vehicle drove over it near Kef (Tunisia Live).  In the second incident, a civilian entered a closed military zone and died after stepping on a mine. There was no explanation for why the man entered the zone (AFP).  In the third incident four soldiers, and maybe a civilian, were killed by a landmine, also near Kef (All Africa).  Tunisian authorities blamed all casualties on Islamist forces who have been using Mount Chaambi as a base from which to threaten the government.


Western Sahara

Vice magazine and the War is Boring blog both profiled the Moroccan berm that splits the Western Sahara territory with 7 million landmines and has caused hundreds, if not thousands of casualties. Both pieces addressed the ongoing conflict and how Islamists have been trying to recruit members from the youths living in the refugee camps on the eastern side of the berm.  Worth noting that Mohamed Abdelaziz, the President of Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) which is the government in-waiting for Western Sahara, has been in power since 1976, trailing only Cameroon’s Paul Biya as the longest-serving leader of a country.



Angolan authorities reported out on landmine clearance progress in Cuanza Sul, Benguela, Cunene and Moxico Provinces.  Removing and destroying thousands of explosive remnants of war, the country continues to make slow progress towards becoming mine-free.  In Cuanza Sul, almost 8 million square meters were cleared of mines over 18 years and now the focus is shifting to secondary and tertiary roads (All Africa).  In Benguela, explosive items that had been stored for more than a year were finally destroyed.  Prompt (certainly more prompt than seen in Benguela) destruction of stockpiled munitions is necessary to prevent accidentally discharges of munitions (All Africa).  With the support of Mines Advisory Group, 1.5 million square meters in Moxico Province have already been cleared in 2014.  Landmine clearance tasks have focused on access roads to allow free movement and the proposed high voltage lines for a future hydroelectric dam (All Africa).  Cunene province’s agricultural outputs will be boosted by the clearing of farmlands and already half a million square meters have been cleared (All Africa).



The tensions between former rebel group RENAMO and the government of Mozambique continued in July which delayed landmine clearance in the Chibabava district of Sofala province.  The government of Mozambique had hoped to finish all landmine clearance in 2014 and RENAMO’s actions threaten that timeline which means that Mozambicans may continue to live with the threat of landmines longer than was necessary (All Africa).



The director of the Zimbabwe Mine Action Centre (ZMAC), Col. Mkhululi Ncube testified before the Zimbabwean Senate’s Thematic Committee on Peace and Security, shortly after he participated in the Maputo Review Conference.  Col. Ncube told the Committee that over 3,600 people have been killed or injured by landmines since 1980 and some 800,000 people have been economically affected by the continuing presence of landmines along the country’s borders.  Landmines have hampered the tourism and agricultural industries in Zimbabwe as well as killing thousands of herd animals. Martin Rushwaya, representing the Ministry of Defence, said that as much as US $100 million may be needed to clear all of the landmines from the country.

In recent years most landmine injuries have been attributed to deliberate tampering with explosives by people trying to extract non-existent red mercury from the devices.  In response ZMAC has been incorporating messages about red mercury in its mine risk education materials.

On the positive side, the minefield surrounding the Kariba Hydroelectric Power Station, the very first minefield laid in Zimbabwe when it was still a British colony, has been cleared and thousands of landmines have been cleared since work resumed in earnest in 2012 (All Africa; News Day; Zimbabwe Mail).



The Higleg area of Sudan’s West Kordofan state has been declared free of landmines.  Heglig was the site of fighting in 2011 between Sudan and South Sudan but has since been cleared of mines (Sudanese Online).

In North Darfur, heavy rains have exposed landmines laid by the government of Sudan according to one of the rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Movement, Abdel Wahid El Nur.  The landmines were spotted near Kutum town and were believed to be intended to “hamper movement of the Darfur resistance forces” (All Africa).

In response to the mine risk throughout the country, Sudan’s National Demining Center launched a mine risk education campaign in the five Darfur states and in Blue Nile state with the support of national and international organizations.  The campaign will integrate mine risk messages into school curricula (GM Sudan).



The Development Initiative has delivered mine risk education messages to over 170,000 Somalis and in the process provided job skills and education opportunities for the Somali staff working for the project (Devex).

Towards the end of the month, Mogadishu’s mayor narrowly avoided a possible assassination attempt when his vehicle drove over a landmine.  The mayor and his security detail were protected from the blast by their vehicle but at least one passerby was killed and another injured by the blast (Sabahi).



In late June, Stephen Beecroft was confirmed as the US Ambassador to Egypt.  While Amb. Beecroft will undoubtedly have his hands full with issues related to the US relationship with Egypt and the assaults on democracy and human rights emanating from the current regime, we ask the Amb. Beecroft remember his time served in the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs where he was involved with landmine clearance.  Egypt has the greatest number of landmines of any country in Africa, almost as many as all other African countries combined, and could use additional assistance to clear this lingering threat (All Gov).



The United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) has been active in Northern Mali for some time, responding to the threats of landmines and ERW which did not exist prior to the Islamist takeover of the region.  Since March 2012, over one hundred civilians have been killed or injured by landmines and ERW, more than half of them children; almost 250 soldiers from the various national and international forces have been killed or injured since January 2013.  UNMAS recently trained explosive ordnance disposal companies from Cambodia and Nepal who are serving in the United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali (MINUSMA).  Two of the Cambodian peacekeepers were injured by an anti-personnel mine when their vehicle drove over the mine.  Because it was an anti-personnel mine and not an anti-vehicle mine, the injuries were severe but not life-threatening.  As the head of the Cambodian team in Mali put it, the driver’s “leg injury was not serious enough for it to be cut off and now he is in hospital in Mali” (Phnom Penh Post).

One point to make about the peacekeepers: Nepal and Cambodia, especially Cambodia, suffer from contamination from landmines and other ERW.  Shouldn’t these trained deminers be working to clear their own countries of landmines before assisting others?



Landmine survivor, advocate and director of the Uganda Landmine Survivors Association (ULSA), Margaret Arech Orech was selected by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego as a 2014 Women PeaceMaker.  As one of four such PeaceMakers, Ms. Orech will serve a three-month residency at the University and contribute to conversations about the role of women in international peacebuilding.



Zambia has declared itself to be free of landmines, but the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) recently updated its travel advice for Zambia saying “There is a risk of landmines in remote areas near the borders with Angola, Mozambique and [the Democratic Republic of Congo].”  The FCO is not clear about whether or not it believes the landmines are in Zambian territory or if it is just warning travelers about the presence of landmines in the neighboring states along the border.  If the FCO has evidence of landmines in Zambia, the FCO should share than knowledge so the government of Zambia can respond (Foreign and Commonwealth Office).

Because of Zambia’s experience in clearing its territory of landmines and ERW, the Foreign Minister, Harry Kalaba, offered his nation’s assistance to Vietnam to help Vietnam address its own landmine and ERW threat.  The announcement came during Kalaba’s visit to Hanoi and is part of an effort to expand cooperation between the two countries (Vietnam News).


South Sudan (via South Africa)

South Africa’s parastatal company, Mechem, is one of the largest demining firms in Africa.  In an article describing Mechem’s growing portfolio, the company’s general manager reported that Mechem provides bomb disposal services for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) beginning July 1 and Mechem’s teams are destroying an average of a ton of ERW in Libya each month.  However, Mechem also reports that the civil war in South Sudan has severely restricted activities there and Mechem is only able to do emergency work at the moment.  Mechem also warned of the “strong possibility” of new landmine usage in South Sudan (Defence Web).



In a bit of irony, Norway, a leader in mine action around the world and a strong champion of the Mine Ban Treaty, twice evacuated a kindergarten in Karmøy in southwestern Norway after two landmines, presumably leftover from World War II, were discovered on the nearby beach in separate incidents in the same week.  Both mines were quickly destroyed, but their presence serves as a reminder that landmines are a global issue (The Local).

Michael P. Moore

August 20, 2014

Moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org

Artisanal or Home-made Landmines

The Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) is a US Department of Defense program designed to counter the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) faced by US and allied soldiers, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan (JIEDDO).  More US soldiers were killed or injured in Iraq and Afghanistan by IEDs than by bullets and this fact led to the creation of JIEDDO and the Obama Administration’s policy on Countering Improvised Explosive Devices (White House).

JIEDDO describes the threat from IEDs as “the weapon of choice” of terrorists, saying:

Improvised explosive devices – known worldwide as IEDs – are the weapon of choice of terrorists because they require limited skills to build and provide dramatic results for very little investment of time, money and effort. The public relations benefit of a surprising spectacular explosion far outweighs attacks using more conventional weapons. Because of this, the IED has become the weapon of choice…

While not a 21st century weapon, the IED became the insurgent weapon of choice during the war in Iraq. Even though the use of IEDs in Iraq has steadily declined since the summer of 2007, they continue to have devastating effect on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

IEDs will continue to be a threat throughout the world – they will never go away. They will grow in sophistication and frequency as more enemies of peace realize the potential psychological, social and political impact a weapon like this provides. There is no other widely available terror weapon that provides the mass media focus, sheer panic and strategic influence than the IED.

IEDs generally come in two forms: remote-controlled and victim-activated, or in JIEDDO’s terminology “Victim Operated Improvised Explosive Devices” (JIEDDO).  Victim-activated IEDs, specifically those targeting individuals and not vehicles, fall under the definition of anti-personnel landmines and are banned by the Mine Ban Treaty.  JIEDDO has compiled, from its research in Afghanistan, a “recognition guide” for victim-activated IEDs.  This guide is useful beyond Afghanistan as we have reported on this site the use of artisanal landmines (my fancy name for victim-activated IEDs) in Tunisia, Mali, Somalia and Libya and I would suspect that the tools, triggers, components and effects are similar between Afghanistan and other countries.

Michael P. Moore

August 5, 2014

moe (at) landminesinafrica (dot) org