More than 2 tonnes of natural uranium reported missing by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog in Libya have been found, according to forces in the war-scarred country’s east.
General Khaled al-Mahjoub, leader of renegade commander Khalifa Haftar’s communications division, said on Thursday that the containers of uranium had been recovered “barely 5km [3 miles]” from where they had been stored in southern Libya.
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Al-Mahjoub referred in his statement to 10 missing barrels being found near the border with Chad although a separate video issued by his media unit showed workers counting 18 recovered barrels.
“The situation is under control. The IAEA has been informed,” Mahjoub told AFP news agency, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Earlier, the nuclear watchdog had said that about 2.3 tonnes of natural uranium had gone missing from a site in Libya that was not under government control, according to reports by news agencies.
The IAEA warned that the missing uranium presented “a radiological risk as well as nuclear security concerns”.
Uranium ore concentrate is considered to emit low levels of radioactivity.
The substance is commonly known as “yellowcake”, a powder consisting of around 80 percent uranium oxide. It is used in the preparation of nuclear fuel for reactors, and can also be enriched for use in nuclear weapons.
Risks from the material are “limited but not negligible,” according to a senior Western diplomat.
“Missing nuclear material is a safeguards and nuclear security concern, especially given the site is not under the control of the regulatory authority in Libya,” the source said.
Under late leader Muammar Gaddafi, Libya in 2003 had renounced its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programmes after secret discussions with the United States and United Kingdom.
Gaddafi’s government had obtained centrifuges that could enrich uranium as well as design information for a nuclear bomb although the country made little progress towards creating a nuclear weapon.
Since a NATO-backed uprising and Gaddafi’s fall in 2011, the country has been beset by political crises and competing militias, which have formed opposing alliances backed by foreign powers. Political control in the country remains split between a nominally interim government in the capital, Tripoli, in the west and another in the east backed by Haftar.
The most recent major fighting only ended in 2020 and sporadic violence continues.