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

2 Comments on “What the violence in Libya means for mine action”

  1. […] only UXO.  I am fairly certain that landmines were placed by militias (please see my earlier post here), but do not have verifiable details to share here.  As demining and mine action organizations are […]

  2. […] when the Libyan Dawn militia ousted the Operation Dignity militia from the airport and Tripoli (Landmines in Africa; Landmines in Africa). In terms of loose alliances, Libyan Dawn is associated with Islamist forces […]

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