Deadly cluster bomb thought to have killed Estonian mine expert

Kaido Keerdo in Dafniyah preparing munitions for destruction last month (Photo: Marcus Rhinelander)

By Marcus Rhinelander.

Tripoli, 11 March 2012:

An Estonian de-mining technician working to clear unexploded ordnance in Libya was killed last Saturday in the coastal town of Dafniyah. Initial reports are that he was killed by a “Type 84” anti-tank mine, a Chinese-made cluster munition that severely wounded two other de-miners working in the same area late last year.

Kaido Keerdo, 31, was a veteran of the Estonian Army’s Explosives Ordnance Disposal unit and had trained in Kenya and worked in South Sudan before coming to Libya. He was working with the charity Danish Church Aid (DCA) when he died.

Cluster munitions, widely known as “cluster bombs”, “bomblets” or “bombies”, are a particularly indiscriminate form of weapon that has been banned in 111 countries by the 2010 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Libya has not signed the treaty, nor have many of the main producers of the weapons,  including the United States, Russia, China and Israel.

A wide range of cluster munitions was used in the fighting in Libya: Soviet, Chinese and Spanish- made sub-munitions carried by bombs, “Grad” rockets and even mortar shells. At least one type is still unidentified. The New York Times At War blog has posted a running discussion on mystery cluster sub-munitions found outside Zintan, thought to be of Chinese or North Korean origin.

The Chinese-made “Type 84” sub-munition likely responsible for Saturday’s death was an anti-tank mine. Unlike most anti-tank mines, which are buried by hand under the ground, the Type 84s, (marked as the “NM1” on the casing but referred to as Type 84s or M84s by the de-mining community), deploy, eight at a time, from airborne 122mm rockets, scattering over a wide area and remaining there, live, until a vehicle drives over them and a magnetic fuse causes them to explode. According to Human Rights Watch, “ the mines are equipped with a sensitive magnetic influence fuse, which also functions as an inherent anti-disturbance feature, as well as a self-destruct mechanism that can be set for a period of four hours to three days. These characteristics pose special problems as the mines sit on the ground, and they complicate efforts by de-miners to clear them.”

Exactly how these systems work is unclear. Humanitarian organisations working in Libya have not been able to get any detailed technical information about the weapons. But cluster munitions are notorious both for the indiscriminate damage they inflict and for their failure rates. They frequently fail to work as designed and remain on the battlefield as a hazard, long after the conflict has ended. The Type 84 mines thought responsible for last week’s tragedy are quickly developing a reputation as the most dangerous remnants of Libya’s recent war.

Keerdo at work clearing munitions                                   (Photo: Marcus Rhinelander)

Last November, two experienced international de-miners working for DCA in Misrata were severely injured by a Type 84 that they were trying to destroy. One, Briton Michael Pavey, lost his hand in the incident. According to team members, they had already shattered the mine with a remote demolition. But the mine’s fuse survived the blast and its explosive booster charge was enough to injure the men, who were evacuated to Malta and Britain. Now it appears that these same cluster munitions have claimed another victim from the same international organisation working to clear Libya of its deadly war-time inheritance.

Copenhagen-based DCA works on removing land mines and unexploded ordnance in countries around the world. Its two November casualties were the most serious in the organisation’s history. Now Kaido’s death holds this sad distinction.

Kaido Keerdo had only worked with DCA for three months. He said that he loved working in Libya: “The people here are great,” he told me three weeks ago in Dafniyah. “They really appreciate the work we are doing.”

But unlike many of his co-workers, Kaido didn’t want to stay in the field. “I don’t want to keep doing this too long” he said, “It’s too dangerous. You heard about the guy here; there were guys in Sudan, in Lebanon who were blown up too… Maybe one more year… I have an idea to go to the States, to L.A. to do a film-making course.”

He talked about his family, his girlfriend back in Estonia: “When I decided to come here, it was really hard for my girlfriend, but I told her ‘just one more year…'”

Type 84 mine and rocket found in February                      (Photo: Marcus Rhinelander)

On January 30th, Kaido was excavating a 122mm rocket outside Dafniyah when he discovered that it was carrying Type 84 mines.

“I saw one right there, on my shovel, and I froze. This was the same thing that took off Michael’s hand. Really bad.”

He carefully put the mine down, sealed off the area with warning tape and prepared to demolish it.

Two days later, I went to the site with the DCA team to photograph its detonation. First the team, led by Kaido and Albanian de-miner Pep Bytyci, evacuated the area around the site, posting sentries to warn people not to enter. Then they gingerly rigged explosives above the mine, took shelter several hundred meters away behind a house, and detonated the charge.

Once again, the Type 84 mine was so tough that the explosion blew it apart but left the fuse intact. After the accident the previous November, the team was extra cautious. Another demolition was needed to destroy the fuse. Then the team turned to the rocket itself, still buried in the ground nearby. They had no way of knowing if the other seven mines carried in the rocket had already deployed or were still buried with the warhead. Taking no chances, the team dug two deep trenches next to the rocket, buried two large explosive charges, and destroyed it in place. Examining the huge crater left by the explosion, Kaido told me “I’m just happy that it’s gone.”

Keerdo setting up a perimeter to protect civilians before exploding a mine (Photo: Marcus Rhinelander)

The chain of events that led up to Kaido’s death began early in the morning of Thursday, March 1st at a checkpoint in Dafniyah, a village on the main road between Tripoli and Misrata. The checkpoint, one of many built during the revolution from stacked shipping containers, was manned by one of the most notorious of the qatibas, “brigades,” the militias that have dominated Libya since the revolution.

The Sehiya Swehli qatiba is originally from Misrata and battled the forces of Muammar Gaddafi from there to Tripoli. Since then however, they have refused to join the combined unit formed to bring the various Misrata qatibas under a unified command, raising the ire of many in their home town. And they have largely abandoned that town for the capital, where they have distinguished themselves by occupying a former military school in the centre of the city, wearing balaclava-style masks to hide their identity, and having firefights with rival militias. Most damningly, they have held two British journalists captive for the past two weeks, in defiance of a series of government orders to turn them over to appointed officials.

According to local sources, in the early hours of Thursday the unified military command from Misrata, tired of the Sehiya Swehli qatiba‘s defiance, surrounded the Dafniyah checkpoint and seized control. Details are hazy, but during the struggle at least one shipping container filled with munitions was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and exploded, strewing ammunition and weapons over a wide area.

Later Thursday morning, when the DCA de-mining team led by Kaido Keerdo arrived near the checkpoint on their way to another clearance task, they learned of the fighting and the scattered ordnance. The team reconnoitred the area and found that one of the containers was still smoking. Immediately they withdrew, explaining to the fighters manning the checkpoint that it was too dangerous to approach until the fire was out and asking them to prevent anyone from entering the site.

The next morning, despite it being Friday and their day off, the DCA team members agreed to return to the scene of the blast because the munitions were scattered around houses, schools and a mosque. After an initial examination they cordoned off the most heavily contaminated area and cleared the remainder. The team found three Type 84 mines outside the cordon, which they surrounded with sandbags. They also saw others inside, which they didn’t approach.

Finally, on Saturday, March 3rd, over 72 hours after the explosion, they returned to the site once more to determine how to best to finish the clearance task. According to other team members, Kaido climbed up on a roof of a nearby building to survey the scene. Then only minutes later, just after 9:30 in the morning, as most of the team approached from a different direction, they heard the blast.

Abdulatif Hussin Ali is from Misrata and has worked with DCA since they began operations there in June. He was the first person to reach Kaido’s body. “We were maybe a hundred meters away, around a building, when we heard ‘BANG!’ I’m calling on the radio ‘Kaido, Kaido’ but no answer. We go look and then I find him. He was laying on the ground like this, on his back, arms at his sides, just like he was sleeping, with his vest over his head. I pull down the vest and see…”

I wanted to know that he had died quickly. “Yes,” he told me, “in one second. Didn’t even know what happened.” He paused. “Sometimes I just stop and remember and see it again. I see it. You know? We were talking together just five minutes before. And then he was dead.”

Keerdo at work in Dafniyah                                    (Photo: Marcus Rhinelander)

The site of Kaido’s death is still extremely dangerous, access is highly restricted and investigations are on-going. But there are several reasons why a Type 84 is presumed responsible. The team had seen the mines both in their carrier rockets and “kicked out” around the area. Pieces of one of an exploded submunition were found near the body. And unlike the other munitions stored there, which are designed to detonate on impact, the Type 84 has a sensitive electronic magnetic influence fuse that may trigger when even a small amount of metal moves nearby. The exact technical specifications are a mystery. But some details are beginning to emerge which illustrate just how long these mines may remain a danger.

Late last year, several Type 84 mines were found by a de-mining team working for the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) in the town of Sirte. According to the Nico Martin, the de-miner who investigated the munitions, “There was a M 84 mine/rocket strike. We have evidence by several parachutes, body parts, shaped charge plates, one burned body with some very damaged electronic parts and one damaged body, all from M 84 scatterable mines. In the damaged body the fuse was damaged but still in place, with a part of the explosive charge. I dismantled the live components and managed to extract the fuse parts for examination, and that is what you have seen.”

When I examined the disassembled mine, the components, like those in many Chinese weapons produced for export, were labeled in English. Surprisingly, the battery in the mine, which provides the power to the fuse, was marked “Made in Israel.”

When first asked to comment about the battery, Nico cautioned that it was not impossible that the battery markings were faked on purpose. “Regarding the ‘Made in Israel’ of the battery component, that’s an amazing figure. But it has to be presented very carefully”, he said, “Is Israel known as a battery maker? Did Israel actually make and export batteries of this type? This can be some sort of deception game… What will be the deduction and reaction if somebody finds a battery ‘Made in Israel’ from scatterable mines?”

More research has answered some of those questions. The battery from the mine is marked “Tadiran.” Tadiran is an Israeli conglomerate (the name is a combination of two company names, Tadir and Ran, and has nothing to do with the nation of Iran). Tadiran Batteries is now a subsidiary of the French Saft Groupe. One of the company’s specialisations is lithium batteries for military applications, which, according to its website, “are ideal for remote locations and challenging environmental conditions… designed specifically for applications such as… ordinance [sic] fuses.”

The battery found in the Type 84 is labelled “TLL-5902”, which is listed on the company’s website. According to the labelling, the battery was “Made in Israel” in “Sep 09”. Tadiran has produced lithium-ion batteries there since 1979.

Israel has a long and murky history of military cooperation with China dating back to the 1980s – even before the two counties had normalised diplomatic relations. It also has extensive experience in the manufacture and use of rocket-launched cluster munitions, firing up to four million submunitions in the 2006 Lebanon war alone, according to the United Nations Mine Action Service.

Ironically, Israel was itself the target of Chinese-made cluster munitions fired by Hezbollah in the Lebanon conflict, who used Type 81 submunitions carried in 122mm rockets, many of which type were recently used in Libya as well. There appears to be no public record of Israeli-Chinese cooperation on cluster munitions nor land mines. This Type 84 found in Libya may be the first evidence of such a link.

Many questions remain. No one knows how many of these cluster munitions were sold by China to Libya. The battery found in Sirte was produced in 2009; Type 84 mines found last year in Misrata were also manufactured in 2009. Whether these were part of the same shipment or series of shipments is uncertain. Precisely how many of the Chinese-made Type 84 submunitions have Israeli-made batteries is likewise a mystery. There is no way of knowing if the mine that killed Kaido Keerdo had the same type of battery as the one found in Sirte. All that is certain is that at some of these Type 84 mines have that connection. Tadiran Batteries advertises its products as “The world’s longest lasting… the only battery proven to last 25 years.” It is safe to assume that more of these weapons are still scattered around Libya, are still dangerous, and if Tadiran’s publicity boast is correct, could remain so for a long time to come.

 

© Marcus Rhinelander [/restrict]

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