“It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s not beyond Gaddafi,” said Mohammed Benrasali, a senior member of Libya’s civilian stabilization team.
Rebel commanders say the concerns are one reason they are moving cautiously as they try to drive Gaddafi loyalists from his home town of Sirte and a key military headquarters in the desert at al-Jufrah.
Gaddafi has used chemical weapons before, during a war with neighboring Chad in 1987. But he agreed to dismantle his weapons-of-mass-destruction program in 2003 in return for rapprochement with the West. To demonstrate his commitment, he ordered the bulldozing of 3,300 artillery shells that could have been used to deliver chemical weapons.
But the stockpiles of mustard gas have taken longer to eliminate. A U.S. Embassy cable in November 2009 released by WikiLeaks suggested that Libya was dragging its feet to maintain leverage and obtain greater compensation.
As a result, 11.25 tons of the poison gas was still in Libya when the uprising against Gaddafi began in February, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international body that works closely with the United Nations.
Gaddafi long ago shut down three facilities where he produced sarin nerve gas and mustard gas.
U.S. officials were skeptical Wednesday about assertions that Gaddafi loyalists were preparing to use chemical weapons — or even possessed them. One senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. intelligence assessments, said Gaddafi’s remaining stocks of mustard agent are thought to be secure. The chemicals, the official said, are stored in bulk containers and are difficult to use.
“Gaddafi did, in fact, destroy many of his most dangerous weapons and never had weaponized sarin or nerve gas,” the official said. “Much of what remains is outdated and difficult to make operational.”
But evidence that chemical weapons were still very much in Gaddafi’s thoughts in recent months has come to light this week.
In huge warehouses in an abandoned military camp on the outskirts of al-Ajelat, a town about 50 miles west of Tripoli, thousands of suits to protect against nuclear, chemical and biological weapons lie stacked in boxes. There are row upon row of boxes of gas masks, as well as flamethrowers, and thousands of antipersonnel and antitank mines, as well as sea mines, all completely unguarded.