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Ottawa commits $10M more to clean up Libya's weapons

Moammar Gadhafi’s unsecured arsenal of weapons of mass destruction poses a threat to Libya and the world at large, Canada’s foreign affairs minister said Tuesday.

John Baird offered his assessment after touring Gadhafi’s notorious Tripoli compound of Bab al-Azizia, now transformed by NATO bombs and rebel forces into a riotous wasteland that celebrates newfound liberty while defiling the deposed dictator’s memory.

“This country is armed to the hilt. We want to see a demilitarization to support the new government,” Baird said on his second, secretive trip to Libya, this time to the country’s capital.

Baird announced a further Canadian commitment of $10 million to help Libya clean up weapons and make the transition to democracy. That’s on top of $10.6 million in Canadian humanitarian aid since the anti-Gadhafi uprising began in February.

Just as he did in June on a trip to Benghazi, Baird travelled to Libya via Italy under heavy security and a strict news blackout — a testament to the continuing volatility in this North African country.

“We know there are seven warehouses of weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons, that Gadhafi showed the world,” said the minister. “So we want to ensure that the people of Libya are kept safe and the people of the world are kept safe so they don’t fall into the wrong hands.”

Government officials say the funds will also help Libya clean up the 23,000 shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missile launchers still in circulation, and deal with the reality of guns everywhere.

Canada’s share is part of a larger international contribution to that effort, said officials.

Gadhafi normalized Libya’s relations with the rest of the world in 2003 after swearing off the use of weapons of mass destruction. That pledge rehabilitated the dictator’s image and, among other things, allowed him to meet regularly with world leaders, including former prime minister Paul Martin.

At the time, Libya gave the United States many components of its nuclear weapons program, including centrifuges and stockpiled uranium. But questions remain about whether Gadhafi’s entire arsenal is accounted for — doubts that have been fanned further in the weeks following his ouster by rebel forces and the subsequent widespread looting.

Gadhafi also had chemical weapons programs that included corrosive mustard gas.

Baird held talks with Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, chairman of the Libya’s new provisional government, at the National Transitional Council’s Tripoli headquarters.

Baird offered “congratulations on the transformative events that have been taking place in Libya, the fall of Tripoli. The establishment of a new government is exciting. We’re excited by the roadmap towards (electing) a national congress. We’re excited about the future role of women in Libya.”

Canada is co-ordinating its future rebuilding efforts in Libya with its international partners, who are all working under a United Nations umbrella. Assessment teams are on the ground in Libya to meet the NTC to plan the next moves.

Baird then moved on to a series of meetings at a Tripoli hotel, travelling in a heavily armed convoy for what was a whirlwind, five-and-half-hour visit.

But the centrepiece of his trip was his stop at Gadhafi’s once-opulent compound, a scene that left the 42-year-old minister slack-jawed.

“It’s just unbelievable,” Baird said upon arrival at Bab al-Azizia, a scene of celebration since Gadhafi was driven from power.

Baird saw no trace of the over-the-top decadence of Libya’s deposed iron man. Instead he witnessed a macabre carnival of jubilant rebel supporters occupying a decimated landscape under a forbidding blanket of grey sky.

The compound is smashed and gutted. A former Gadhafi house is a battered shell, riddled with bullets, covered with graffiti, strewn with garbage.

Shops and stalls have set up in what was the old entrance. A few families with children milled about, but most of the several dozen people Baird met were enthusiastic youth, who clamoured around the stalls or victoriously scaled the upper floors.

Almost all the items for sale — ball caps, necklaces, earrings, flags, pins, wristbands — bore the red, green and black tricolour of the country’s freedom fighters.

A dormant popcorn machine sat next to a table bearing dozens of photos that depicted Gadhafi dressed as a baby, pushing a wheelbarrow and crawling from a sewer.

Baird handed out Canadian flag pins and posed for photos with youths. None spoke English beyond a random word, but that proved to be no barrier between the minister and the members of Libya’s next generation.

The minister witnessed the massive destructive power of the NATO bombardment in Gadhafi’s compound, but otherwise there was little evidence of damage along his winding route through this windswept, seaside city. Ubiquitous Arabic graffiti covered every surface of its white-walled building.

“Get out;” “We are strong;” “Freedom forever;” and “We win or die,” were among the few simple English messages scrawled amongst the mix — an elegant shorthand for the country’s recent struggle.

Baird later presided at the reopening of the Canadian embassy in Tripoli, on the seventh floor of an office building overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

Canadian ambassador Sandra McCardell, who closed the mission on Feb. 26, introduced Baird to local employees who had spent the last six and a half months hunkered down in their war-torn country. NATO warplanes — including six Canadian CF-18s — enforced a no-fly zone that helped rebel fighters eventually claim the capital.

Baird held a roundtable with Libyan women’s activists and also met Ali Tarhouni, the NTC’s minister of finance and oil.

A key priority of the newly functioning embassy, McCardell said, will be to help Canadian companies that were forced to leave resume operations. They include Alberta oil-producer Suncor and Montreal engineering firm SNC Lavalin.

Calgary-based Suncor had been working with the state-owned National Oil Corp., and was producing about 50,000 barrels of oil a day before the violence began. SNC Lavalin was involved in several Libyan ventures, including building a prison.

Representatives of those two firms and Pure Technologies accompanied Baird on his trip to Tripoli and held separate meetings, but none of the companies had specific plans to restart operations in Libya just yet.

Tarhouni told Baird the NTC is reviewing old contracts to see if they are legitimate. He told Baird that Libya has also reached a production milestone of 400,000 barrels of oil per day, about one-quarter of the pre-civil war output.

“They’re getting their industry back on track, which obviously provides a huge source of revenue to the Libyan government and to help the Libyan people,” Baird said.

“Obviously we’re fighting for Canadian companies to be able to begin their operations as soon as possible. That’ll be good for the Canadian economy and good for the future of Libya.”

It was Baird’s second trip to Libya in less than four months, coming after his quick, late June tour of the eastern city of Benghazi, the former rebel stronghold.

Baird had no serious international credentials before being shuffled to Canada’s top diplomatic post, but has worked hard to place his stamp on the portfolio with these two Libyan forays.

Baird and his entourage arrived as revolutionary forces continued to wage a deadly, street-to-street battle for control of Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, about 400 kilometresoutheast of Tripoli.

“We look forward to the day of liberation, which we hope is soon upon us,” Baird said.

The rebel forces took Tripoli in August but have yet to gain full control of the country, while Gadhafi’s whereabouts are not known.

Libya’s new leaders are anxious to hold elections and start building their new democracy. They say they will declare Libya fully liberated after Sirte falls.