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Gaddafi has chemical weapons and he’s ready to use them

The first that Gaddafi’s poorly armed opposition would know of an impending attack on them from their country’s embattled leader would be the distant ‘crump’ of artillery fire.

Moments later the shells would start to land. For a few seconds there might be relief, laughter even, that the shells had either fallen short or gone over  their heads.

But then the gentle desert breeze would blow the deadly smoke from the exploded munitions towards them and suddenly — too late — those fighting for democracy in Libya would realise Gaddafi hadn’t missed at all.

It could be a sudden choking in their lungs, a searing pain in their eyes, the rapid blistering of their skin.

As they slumped to the ground, blinded, vomiting or coughing up blood, they would die in the desert knowing two things. First, that despite his lies, despite his obfuscation, Gaddafi does still have biological and chemical weapons. Second, that he was now desperate and deranged enough to use them.

For now, a biological or chemical attack by Gaddafi on his own people is still only the stuff of nightmares.

But what is worrying a growing number of Western military and intelligence experts is that it could become a terrifying reality at any moment.

Gaddafi may have promised to give up such weapons in 2003 as part of the deal that brought the rogue state back into the diplomatic fold, but the chilling fact is he still has enough to kill and maim an awful lot of people.

He still has almost ten tonnes of the chemicals needed to make mustard gas, the near-odourless gas that condemned so many to a lingering and excruciatingly painful death in World War I — and which was certainly one of the ingredients in the lethal, toxic cocktail that Saddam Hussein infamously used to kill up to 5,000 people in the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988.

He still has 650 tonnes of materials required to produce a range of deadly chemical weapons. Their effects on the human body are probably known only to those who made them and who now store them at the Rabta Chemical Weapons Production Facility — the largest chemical weapons production facility in the developing world.

Libya’s former Justice Minister Mustafa Abdel-Jalil says Gaddafi still has biological weapons — anthrax perhaps; nerve agents such as sarin; possibly even genetically modified smallpox — and that he isn’t afraid to use them.

Anthrax was first used as a weapon by the Japanese army against prisoners of war in the Thirties. If Gaddafi unleashes this deadly disease on his people, the effects could be catastrophic, killing thousands.

The threat of sarin — a substance so toxic that a drop can kill an adult — is just as worrying.

Known as a ‘nerve-agent’ because it overstimulates the nervous system, exhausting glands and muscles and causing respiratory failure, sarin may be within Gaddafi’s arsenal. In 2004, Libya admitted that stockpiles of sarin have been produced in the country’s Rabta facility.

He also has 1,000 tonnes of ‘yellow cake’ uranium, the first step towards building an atomic bomb.

Libya is thought to be some way from being able to make an atomic bomb — details of its fairly rudimentary nuclear programme were revealed as part of the 2003 deal with Washington, and its relatively small stock of enriched uranium acquired from Pakistan and North Korea were handed to the U.S.

But there’s no shortage of the raw material in this highly unstable region of North Africa. Niger, Libya’s desperately poor neighbour to the south, and reportedly the country of origin for many of Gaddafi’s mercenaries, is one of the top producers of uranium in the world.

The nuclear threat from Libya may be small, but it would be a fool who says it had vanished entirely.

As part of the diplomatic deal in 2003, when Gaddafi handed over Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), he destroyed his long-range missiles and 3,300 aerial mortar shells designed for delivering mustard gas and chemical agents.

But, despite this being hailed at the time as ‘the real non-proliferation success story of the new millennium’ by President Bush’s assistant, American Secretary of State Paula DeSutter, the destruction and verification process has been slow, tortuous and incomplete.

Gaddafi still has an unknown number of lethal Scud-B missiles and a huge arsenal of conventional artillery that could be adapted relatively easily for use with chemical and biological agents.

But could Britain, the United States and their Western allies really stand by and let Gaddafi bomb his own people with mustard gas or anthrax as it once stood by and let Saddam Hussein launch his genocidal gas attack on the Kurds? I don’t believe so for a moment.

All the military intelligence I’ve picked up indicates that at the first sign of a biological or chemical attack against the Libyans, Western forces will move swiftly and decisively to bring Gaddafi’s regime to an end.

Gaddafi is a desperate and probably deranged man, who has publicly pledged that he will not leave the country or stand down, but would prefer to die ‘a martyr’s death’. The problem is he has the terrifying capability of being able to impose not a martyr’s death, but a cruel, lingering and excruciatingly painful death on thousands of others, too.

Justin Marozzi is the author of South From Barbary: Along The Slave Routes Of The Libyan Sahara