For 42 years, Libya's toppled dictator Muammar al-Gadhafi stock piled arms and set up secret arsenals. Now all those weapons have to be safely retrieved. Germany sends its know-how and money to help rebuild the country.
Two years after the revolution in Libya, men in paramilitary clothing carrying assault rifles or cannons mounted on civilian pick-up trucks remain a familiar sight:. They're a clear sign that the power in the Northern African country – and with it the control over weapons – remains in the hands of many.
Nobody knows exactly just how many rifles, cannons, rockets or mines there still are in Libya. But one thing's clear: After the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar al Gadhafi was toppled, the number of non-government controlled arms has skyrocketed. A large share of rifles or mortar guns with ammunition have made it out of Libya via smuggling routes to Algerian Islamists, Malian insurgents and Syrian rebels. And there's still an abundance of such arms in Gadhafi's arsenal.
To prevent more weapons from Libya falling into the wrong hands, the German Foreign Office has been supporting several projects in Libya. Germany supplies money, knowledge and equipment so that the new Libyan government can resume control over arms depots and ammunition.
"We're trying to support the country in the post-conflict situation it's in, and to prevent further arms getting into neighboring countries where they can cause harm," said the German government's official in charge of decommissioning activities, Rolf Nikel, in an interview with DW. Nikel went to Libya back in spring 2011 for consultations that also focused on small arms. Germany helped the setting up of a Libyan institution for the control of these arms, according to Nikel.
The Foreign Office also gives money to aid organizations specializing in the decommission of ammunition and arms. Among those organizations is the "St. Barbara Foundation", which was founded in 1995 in Munster in the German state of Lower Saxony. The organization clears minefields, collects forgotten ammunition and unexploded bombs – among them left-overs from NATO's bomb attacks on forces loyal to Gaddafi.
The high number of weapon depots is a cause of great concern for Klaus Koehler, the foundation's chairman. "I would guess that some 440 such depots are known," he said, adding that in one of the depots there were for example 3,000 brand new rockets with a range of an estimated 70 to 230 kilometers. Koehler warned that similar ones are regularly sold to countries in the region, such as Syria. "In Libya, nobody will invest money in destroying something which they could sell abroad for a high profit."
Strong militia weakens Libya's government
Arms smuggling is a big problem for Libya's government, said Libyan journalist Essam Zuber. A strong militia and an abundance of ownerless weapons put investors off, he said, which only further delayed the country's reconstruction. And still, there is no government program to curtail the problem. "The government hasn't even tried to collect the weapons for money," reported journalist Zuber, who also works for DW.
Fear of defensive missiles
Some arms constitute a threat for not just Libya, in particular anti-aircraft missiles fired from the shoulder. "They are threat to civilian air traffic and we have to make sure that those so-called 'manpads' are being destroyed," said German decommission expert Nikel. The German Foreign Office in collaboration with local authorities has helped bring those weapons under control, he added.
Zuber didn't contradict those claims, but he relativized the overall achievement. "The people in Libya don't know anything about German activities to control weapons." He hopes that more will be done to increase public awareness in Libya. "It has to be made clear that German experts help the Libyan people by decommissioning weapons and by clearing mines."
Turning swords into ploughshares
The chairman of the German St Barbara foundation, Klaus Koehler, wants to help and said there was still much potential for German projects in Libya. With the help of long-term financing, he aims to launch projects implementing the famous biblical phrase quite literally, turning swords truly into ploughshares. He gave one example: a few months ago, a depot with some five million anti-personnel mines was discovered – in other words: some 2,200 tons of explosives. "They wanted to conduct a controlled explosion. That would of course have been a major environmental disaster in a country which has vast areas of desert." Koehler suggested instead recycling the arms. "You could retrieve explosives, process them and turn them into a kind of explosive that can be used in the oil industry or in road construction."
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