Italy intercepts Chinese UAVs being smuggled to Libya

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Italian authorities have seized Fei Long-1 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – disguised as wind turbine parts – that were being smuggled to Libya in shipping containers.

The United Nations has an arms embargo imposed on Libya, necessitating the subterfuge, which saw six containers filled with weapons – included two UAVs and two control stations – marked as wind turbine components.

The containers were inspected at the Italian Port of Gioia Tuaro on 18 June, the Guardia di Finanza confirmed in a statement on 2 July. It said the containers were deemed suspicious after examining their shipping route and “anomalies in the accompanying customs documentation.”

“These containers were supposed to transport components for the assembly of wind power generators. After having carried out the X-ray scan with equipment in use at the local Customs and Monopolies Agency, the subsequent investigations by the investigators of the Guardia di Finanza Group of Gioia Tauro ascertained that, despite having similar construction features to component parts of wind turbines, the goods transported had elements and construction details such as to suggest they could be fuselages and wings of aircraft suitable for flight such as drones for combat use.

“These components were hidden among some composite roofing loads replicating wind turbine blades, with the aim of concealing the controls put in place,” the Guardia di Finanza said, adding that the components were seized in line with the arms embargo on Libya.

One of the UAVs even had “The energy saving world” written along its side in an attempt to disguise its true purpose.

The suspicious containers were aboard the MSC Arina, which was en route from the Chinese port of Yantian to Benghazi, which is controlled by the Libyan faction commanded by Khalifa Haftar. However, some sources suggest the plan was to load the containers onto another ship bound for Libya.

It is reported that Italian authorities had received US intelligence about the suspected weapons shipment. The Times of London reported Italian authorities were close to intercepting another suspicious shipment of containers – aboard the MSC Apolline – in an attempt to foil Haftar’s weapons for oil scheme.

Initially reported as being Wing Loong UAVs, Janes identified the seized aircraft as Fei Long-1s, manufactured by Zhong Tian Guide Control Technology Company. The type first first flew in January 2019. It has a maximum takeoff weight of 3 200 kg, with a payload of 1 400 kg including fuel. It is equipped with a ventral electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) turret.

The Wing Loong series has been widely exported, with customers including Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE has apparently supported Haftar with Wing Loong strikes over western Libya (Haftar controls the east of the country) since 2016. There have been multiple losses – at least ten reported – of Wing Loongs operated by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), with examples shot down by the opposing Government of National Accord (GNA), by airstrikes, by friendly fire, and in combat-related incidents.

Apparently there were around 1 000 UAV strikes in Libya in 2020 alone, with UAVs successfully gathering intelligence and supporting LNA offensives. Their success on the battlefield prompted the GNA to acquire Bayraktar TB2 UAVs from Turkey.

Libya descended into chaos after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011, and is split between rival administrations in the east and west.