Tripoli (AFP) - Libya has shipped the last of its chemical weapons stocks out of the country, officials said Tuesday, under a UN-backed plan to ensure the arsenal could not fall into the wrong hands.
The move will ease fears that extremists like the Islamic State group could gain access to the weapons in Libya, which has been wracked by chaos since the 2011 overthrow of Moamer Kadhafi.
A senior security official told AFP the stocks, including 23 tanks of chemicals, were shipped out on a Danish vessel on Saturday from the port of Misrata, under the supervision of the United Nations, and were destined for Germany.
The stocks had been stored in the central Jafa area, about 200 kilometres (125 miles) south of Sirte where Libyan pro-government forces are battling IS jihadists, he said.
"We as Libyans did not want these weapons, especially during the current security situation and with the presence of IS in the region," the security official said.
The deputy prime minister of Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA), Mussa el-Koni, confirmed the operation.
"All of Libya's chemical arsenal has been shipped out of the country," he told AFP. "This is good news for Libya, and for the peace of Libya, and we thank all the countries that participated and the UN."
The Danish government had earlier this month offered to send a container vessel, support ship and 200 staff to handle the operation, coordinated by the UN-backed Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
- 500 tonnes of toxic chemicals -
In an emailed statement to AFP, the OPCW said: "We are not in a position to disclose operational details of an ongoing effort."
It specified however that the stocks in question "are industrial chemicals in wide use as well as precursor chemicals that are several stages away from being actual chemical weapons."
A German defence ministry spokesman said the shipment would arrive in Germany "in the coming weeks" and contained "about 500 tonnes of toxic chemical products" that would be destroyed by GEKA, Germany's state-owned company for disposing of chemical weapons.
"These chemical products can be used to produce toxic gases or warfare agents, but are not toxic gases or warfare agents," the spokesman said.
A Danish foreign ministry spokesman said the government "can neither confirm nor deny" reports of its involvement.
The UN Security Council on July 22 endorsed plans to remove Libya's remaining chemical weapons from the country and prevent them from falling into the hands of extremists like IS.
Libya joined the UN convention on eliminating chemical weapons in 2004 as part of Kadhafi's ultimately abortive efforts to shake off the country's pariah status and mend relations with the West.
The convention uses a broad definition of "chemical weapons" to include not only those already prepared for delivery but also toxic chemicals intended for use in weapons and the precursors used to create them.
- Battle for Sirte -
At the time Libya joined the convention, it declared 24.7 tonnes of sulphur mustard, 1,390 tonnes of precursor chemicals and more than 3,500 aerial bombs containing chemical weapons.
It had eliminated all the aerial bombs, 51 percent of the sulphur mustard and 40 percent of the precursor chemicals by 2011, when operations to destroy the arsenal were interrupted by the uprising against Kadhafi, according to the OPCW.
Of three chemical weapons production facilities also declared in 2004, two were destroyed and one converted for civilian use, it said.
Fears over the remaining stockpiles grew with the rise of the Libyan branch of IS, which took advantage of the country's turmoil last year to seize control of the coastal city of Sirte.
Forces loyal to the internationally backed GNA, a unity government that was declared earlier this year but has struggled to assert its authority, have made significant gains against IS in Sirte.
After capturing most of the city including IS's central headquarters earlier this month, loyalist forces have cornered the jihadists in one last district.
"Preparations to liberate the entire city are ongoing today and we expect the situation to be resolved in a very short time," Reda Issa, a spokesman for the loyalist forces, told AFP on Tuesday.