Gaddafi dumped uranium in desert
Sitting in row after row, the blue barrels are as frightening as any remnant of the Gaddafi regime. Some are marked radioactive, as were the open plastic bags alongside.
The powder they contain appears to be yellowcake uranium from neighbouring Niger. Yet when they were discovered by rebel forces last week, they were abandoned in tumbledown warehouses protected only by a low wall.
Niger mines yellowcake under a strict security regime designed to ensure none of it falls into the hands of illicit networks. But post-Gaddafi Libya affords little or no protection to this vast haul of material, which if refined to high levels of purity is the essential element of a nuclear bomb.
It was reported last week that Iran, which is pursuing underground nuclear programmes, had joined in the looting of Libyan weaponry. Despite the dangers, international atomic agencies and Libya's rebels say it will take weeks to put safeguards in place. There are at least 10,000 drums with a total capacity of two million litres, though most have not been opened and checked for their contents. They are being stored not far from the southern desert city of Sabha.
The International Atomic Energy Agency says it knew Gaddafi had stockpiled yellowcake uranium near Sabha -- a relic of the years when he tried to develop nuclear weapons after obtaining blueprints from the Pakistani scientist, AQ Khan. After agreeing to dismantle the programme in 2003, Gaddafi was supposed to have given up all his nuclear technology. He was also supposed to have given up chemical weapons, but it is known he still had mustard gas awaiting disposal.
A WikiLeaks cable disclosed that two years ago he was trying to sell 1,000 metric tonnes of yellowcake on the world market. No one expected such a valuable commodity to have been left dumped in the desert.
Sabha was an important stronghold for Gaddafi, who spent part of his youth here, and many of the locals are from the Gaddafi tribe. Abdullah Senussi, his security chief, right-hand man and brother-in-law, is from a town 50 miles to the north.
But the city was only lightly defended. A total of 12 rebels died in the fighting, with just one or two parts of the town resisting at all.
Having driven out the remnants of the Gaddafi forces towards the Algerian border, the rebel troops said they were ordered to secure former military bases -- a standard practice adopted belatedly to stop weapons stockpiles going missing. The site is now guarded by half a dozen rebel troops. (© Daily Telegraph, London)