US hunting down anti-aircraft missiles in Libya

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The United States is paying European mine clearing groups to find and destroy anti-aircraft missiles in Libya that could make their way into terrorist hands.

The Associated Press reports the US State Department has spent nearly US$1 million hiring British and Swiss weapons disposal teams in Libya to dispose of surface to air missiles.
“From the US point of view, it was an issue of paramount importance,” said Justin Baker, officer-in-charge of the UN Mine Action Service, which is overseeing the weapons disposal effort in Libya. “The Libyans seemed to get the big picture of what was necessary to present a credible international face.”

The Obama administration listed the nearly US$1 million anti-man portable air defence (MANPADS) effort this week in a report to Congress defending its involvement in Libya, the Associated Press reports.

There are indications that looted and abandoned weapons are making their way into the hands of rebels and terrorists throughout northern Africa. In April a senior Algerian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters how a convoy of eight Toyota pick-up trucks had transported RPG-7 anti-tank rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikov heavy machine guns, Kalashnikov rifles, explosives and ammunition from Libya to Chad, then Niger and Mali.

He also said he had information that Al Qaeda’s north African wing, known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had acquired from Libya Russian-made shoulder-fired Strela surface-to-air missiles known by the NATO designation SA-7.
“Several military barracks have been pillaged in this region (eastern Libya) with their arsenals and weapons stores and the elements of AQIM who were present could not have failed to profit from this opportunity.”

Samer Riad, a journalist with Algeria’s El Khabar newspaper who specializes in security issues, said there was a danger al Qaeda could capitalize on the conflict in Libya in the same way it did in Somalia.

In Washington, the US State Department earlier raised concerns about possible arms transfers with the Benghazi-based Libyan opposition, which promised to look into the matter.

Officials with the two firms hired by the State Department, the British-based Mines Advisory Group and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action, said almost all of the Libyan weapons depots they surveyed in recent weeks showed clear signs of looting, according to AP.
“The ammo dumps we’ve seen are either partially destroyed or picked clean,” said Alexander Griffiths, director of operations for the Swiss group, which now has 35 disposal experts working in rebel territory under a US$470 000 American grant. “We haven’t seen MANPADS so far and my guess is we won’t see many because they’re such a high-value item. They would be the first items to go.”

The Mines Advisory Group located and destroyed two of the portable missile systems near the northeastern Libyan opposition-controlled town of Ajdabiya last week, according to spokeswoman Kate Wiggans. The group also found two other SA-7s in May and destroyed them.



The Mines Advisory Group has three workers in Libya but plans to expand to at least 20, operating with $486,000 in State Department funding and $290,000 in British government aid, Wiggans said.