Mine, Cluster Bomb Use Reported in Libya

Xiaodon Liang and Farrah Zughni

Libyan pro-government forces fired mortar shells carrying cluster munitions over Misrata on the night of April 14, according to nongovernmental organizations.

Coming shortly after the Thai government was accused of using cluster munitions in early February, the Libyan case marks the second reported use of those weapons since the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force last August. (See ACT, September 2010.) Libya and Thailand are not parties to the treaty.

Combatants aligned with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi fired mortar rounds, “each of which carries and distributes 21 submunitions designed both to kill people and to penetrate light armor,” on civilian-occupied areas of Misrata, according to an April 15 article in The New York Times. The nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch, which also reported the incident, found evidence of at least three separate cluster munition strikes and interviewed locals who claimed to have witnessed government use of submunitions prior to April 14.

The Obama administration did not comment on the incident until an April 21 press conference in Washington. At the event, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “Colonel Gaddafi’s troops continue their vicious attacks, including the siege of Misrata. There are even reports that Gaddafi forces may have used cluster bombs against their own people. In the face of this inhumanity, the international community remains united in our resolve.”

In an April 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a Department of State spokesman said the United States “will be working to verify” the reports that the Gaddafi regime used cluster munitions and landmines.

The Libyan government has denied using any cluster munitions. “We challenge them to prove it,” Musa Ibrahim, a Libyan government spokesman, told The Telegraph on April 17 when asked about the accusations. “To use these [cluster] bombs, you know, the evidence will remain for days and weeks. And we know the international community is coming en masse on our country soon. So we can’t do this.”

Human Rights Watch said it has confirmed that pro-regime fighters laid dozens of landmines, both anti-vehicle and anti-personnel, outside the Libyan city of Ajdabiya on March 30. The organization said it also observed plastic anti-vehicle mines left in Benghazi during government forces’ retreat from the city on March 19. Plastic mines are particularly difficult to remove after a conflict as they cannot be identified by metal detectors.

Anti-personnel landmines are prohibited under the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, the most comprehensive international agreement pertaining to landmines. Libya has not signed that treaty.

Rebels Accused of Landmine Use

As Libyan territory has fallen to rebel groups, so have some of the regime’s weapons caches, including landmine stockpiles. Although the amount of such weapons in government or rebel hands is unknown, Human Rights Watch reported that a UN demining expert found 12 warehouses containing tens of thousands of anti-vehicle mines at a single rebel-held military arms depot in Benghazi.

In a March 30 press release, Human Rights Watch reported that Gen. Khalifa Hufter, the commander of rebel forces in eastern Libya, had pledged March 25 that anti-regime forces would not deploy landmines during the conflict. Over the years, several nonstate armed groups have signed agreements or made unilateral declarations promising that they will not manufacture, deploy, or store anti-personnel landmines.

However, an April 19 BBC article reported that the news outlet had filmed rebels placing what were identified as PRB-M3 anti-tank mines near Ajdabiya just days before.

Although anti-vehicle mines are not prohibited by the Mine Ban Treaty, some human rights advocates worry that rebels will rig the PRB-M3 with a more sensitive fuse. When used with such a fuse, “the PRB-M3 meets the definition of an antipersonnel mine under the international Mine Ban Treaty,” said Human Rights Watch special adviser Fred Abrahams in an April 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today.