Soldiers clear mines with their bare hands in Libya's Benghazi
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When the Islamic State (IS) group left Benghazi, Libya’s second city, they also left behind many improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The demining process is dangerous enough for trained professionals clearing standard mines. However, the task becomes exponentially more dangerous when the soldiers demining haven’t been trained and lack the proper equipment. Furthermore, the mines they are clearing are handmade and vary immensely.
IEDs are often planted in the ground and contain a mechanism that detonates when pressure is put on it. A person – be it a soldier or a civilian – triggers the explosion by stepping on it or driving a vehicle over it. Mines kill indiscriminately.
Over the past month, Libyans have been sharing several videos on social media that show IEDs being removed by soldiers who are equipped with, at the most, a pair of gloves and pliers. The men who risk their lives to neutralize these handmade mines are soldiers from the Libyan National Army, which is a paramilitary group mostly made up of officers who defected from the army of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The LNA leader is General Haftar, who is heading the fight against islamists in Benghazi.
Khaled (not his real name) is an LNA soldier. Before he was injured while fighting, he worked clearing mines in Benghazi neighbourhoods recaptured from the IS group.
“I used pliers to neutralise hundreds of mines, but there are so many that the work is endless!”
In Benghazi, the combat zones are full of artisanal mines. The IS group uses them to slow our advance – it’s their favorite weapon. So once we win back a neighbourhood, we have to go over it with a fine-toothed comb. You have to be very careful because the explosives can be triggered from a distance, with a cell phone, for example.
An explosive device. Photo by one of our Observers.
The explosives take different forms and they are hidden all over, even in the doorways of homes. It is a way of preventing displaced residents from returning home.
Even though we have lots of experience, many members of our demining squad have died or been injured neutralizing IEDs. We don’t have any special equipment to remove them. One of our officers was trained in demining in France and he shared his knowledge with all of us. Each explosive device requires a different approach. I used pliers to neutralise hundreds of mines, but there are so many that the work is endless!
LNA soldiers often share photos on social media of the many different kinds of explosive devices that they find.
An expert in explosive devices, who uses the Twitter handle Janus the Nameless and prefers not to be named for security reasons, regularly posts about the kinds of explosives that are becoming a major problem in Libya. “Janus” works to classify and catalogue these weapons, with the aim of improving detection methods and helping people avoid triggering the mines.
“The National Libyan Army is using an explosives detector that doesn’t even work!”
Soldiers from General Haftar’s army are conducting the majority of the removal and destruction of explosive devices. As Libya is still a war zone, it is hard for civilian actors to go there.
I catalogued three different kinds of explosive devices being used in Libya.
The first: 'Radio-Controlled Improvised Explosives (RCIED)', which are triggered by a radio signal. Most often, people use cell phones to trigger these explosive devices from a safe distance.
Example of a radio-controlled improvised explosive device.
The second: "Victim-Operated Improvised Explosive Devices (VOIED)", which are set off by victims who walk or drive over the device or hit a tripwire.
Example of a Victim-Operated Improvised explosive device.
The third: "Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED)", which are explosive devices mounted on a vehicle. Suicide bombers in Libya often use vehicles packed with explosives.
Example of a vehicle packed with explosives in Benghazi.
The demining squads are lacking in both equipment and training. When soldiers are given equipment, they often don’t use it because they are used to doing it by hand. Moreover, some of their equipment doesn’t even work. The Libyan National Army uses an explosives detector that doesn’t even work! The British man who invented it actually went to prison over it.
This bomb detector doesn’t actually work.
UNMAS, the UN body dedicated to the fight against landmines and other explosive remnants of war, provides training programmes to military engineers to detect risk zones. However, they don’t actually train people to detect and remove explosive devices. Paul Grimsley, who is in charge of the UNMAS training programme, says: “Needs should be better identified, and official teams should be set up. Libyan authorities need to make specific requests to deal with the lack of training and equipment.”
The war isn’t even over and the demining task is already immense because Libya already had active landmines and explosives left over from previous conflicts. The countryside is laden with active mines from the North African campaign during WWII (1940-1943), the Libyan-Egyptian War (1977), and the war between Libya and Chad (1978-1987) as well as the civil war in 2011.
Moreover, even the forces of General Haftar – who are working on clearing IEDs planted by the IS group – resorted to using IEDs themselves to make up for the lack of conventional weapons caused by an embargo on arm sales to Libya that has been ongoing since 2011.
A member of the Libyan National Army makes improvised grenades.