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Former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is currently not the only object of intense search in Libya. Large amounts of weapons are missing from his many abandoned, well-stocked arsenals, and no one knows where they have gone. But causing Western intelligence services nightmares, though, are the thousands of unaccounted for shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles (SAMS) that, in capable terrorist hands, could bring down civilian airliners.
Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch has travelled around Libya, visiting former Gaddafi armouries. He describes what he found as “shocking.” At one storage facility alone he found 100,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. To make matters worse, the site was unguarded.
“Qaddafi’s weapons stocks far exceeded what we saw in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein; some of the weapons such as surface-to-air missiles now floating around eastern Libya are giving security officials sleepless nights,” said Bouckaert, who adds he is now getting “anxious” phone calls from these officials.
Documents discovered at one abandoned armoury show that 482 shoulder-held SAMS made up one Russian shipment alone to Libya in 2004 and are now nowhere to be found. These SAMs are a sophisticated Russian model, the SA-24, which have a range of 11,000 feet. This model was apparently the Soviet Union’s answer to the portable American Stinger missile that brought down so many Soviet helicopters and aircraft during the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The threat that these SA-24s pose to civilian air traffic is real. In 2002, two other Russian-made SAMS, albeit a different model, were fired at an Israeli passenger plane leaving Mombasa, Kenya; but both missiles fortunately missed their target. A Lebanese-based terrorist group, called the Army of Palestine, took responsibility for that attack. There are reports that some SA-24s have already been smuggled out of Libya by Iranian agents, based in Sudan, belonging to the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
“The SA-24 is on the top wish list of Iran; the US tried to block its transfer from Russia to [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez because they were afraid it was going to get into Iranian hands a few years ago,” said Bouckaert.
It is estimated that Gaddafi spent more than $100 billion on arms during his 42-year rule. This accounts for why his forces seemed to have an unlimited supply of weapons and munitions despite the United Nations (UN) arms embargo placed on Libya. And it would also account for why his fighters are still able to continue resisting the rebel forces in their last strongholds of Sirte and Bani Walid. In contrast, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) warplanes were running out of bombs within weeks of NATO’s decision to intervene, a deficiency that America had to make good.
As for Libya’s future, the greatest danger is that the country is awash in guns. Gaddafi had arms issued to the general population, and even to criminals, in order to fight the insurgency. It is also going to be difficult for the country’s provisional ruling body, the National Transition Council (NTC), to disarm them and the numerous militias that fought Gaddafi’s forces, since they regard themselves as independent or semi-independent entities. The NTC has often been described as united in only one thing: deposing Gaddafi.
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