Agencies begin clearing unexploded weapons in Libya

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 11 November 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7339
  1. Anne Gulland
  1. 1London

Weapons and unexploded ordnance pose a serious risk to civilians in Libya, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned, as it begins clearance operations in the towns of Sirte and Bani Walid.

Although fighting has ceased in most parts of Libya civilians continue to be injured or killed by explosive devices. And there have been several casualties in Sirte, including an 8 year old girl who lost her arm while playing with an explosive device.

The ICRC is working in partnership with the Libyan government and other agencies and began a public information campaign in the cities earlier this month. It distributed posters, t-shirts, and hats explaining the hazards of unexploded ordnance.

Guy Marot, weapons contamination coordinator for the ICRC in the Libyan capital Tripoli, said that there was a whole range of unexploded ordnance in Libya, from small arms right through to heavy calibre projectiles.

“The main threat to civilians and people returning to their homes is from the smaller weapons, such as grenades,” he said.

“One of the big problems is that anywhere up to 30% of munitions fail to function in the way in which they were designed,” he added, meaning it was difficult to predict how they would react if handled.

People who had been forced out of Sirte and Bani Walid during the heavy fighting are now going back to survey the damage done to their properties, said Mr Marot.

“They’re going through the ruins of their homes and they see the odd item that they don’t recognise. They go and handle it and then it explodes,” he said.

There is no clear picture yet of the numbers of civilian adults and children injured or killed in this way, Mr Marot added.

The Mines Advisory Group, a non-governmental organisation which specialises in clearing mines and unexploded ordnance, said the town of Zintan is also heavily affected by unexploded weaponry. Its website features the story of 9 year old Mahmood Ahmed, who found a bullet and began to smash it with a rock outside his house to see what would happen. The bullet exploded, cutting his hand off.

Since March, the ICRC has made safe almost 1400 warheads, munitions, grenades, and mortar shells in cities around the country.

As well as disarming unexploded ordnance from the recent fighting, the interim Libyan government is also trying to secure the large stockpiles of weapons held by the previous regime.

Max Dyck, programme manager for the UN led mine clearing team in Libya, told a press conference at the beginning of November that the Libyan authorities do not yet have the resources to deal with the problem.

“If the nations of the world do not assist the Libyans now in trying to get to grips with this problem, nobody can come back in six months and complain when it [munitions] winds up in places where they don’t want it to. Now is the time to be dealing with it, and now is the time that the world should be helping,” he said.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d7339

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