US and Libyan explosive ordnance disposal experts have secured 5 000 surface-to-air missiles accumulated by Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, a top US official said yesterday.
AFP reports Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, as saying that, “we have identified, disbanded and secured more than 5 000 MANPADS (Man-Portable Air Defence Systems), while thousands more have been destroyed during NATO bombing,”
Dozens of these missiles were detonated along the shore facing Sidi Bin Nur village, east of Tripoli, as Shapiro, on a one-day visit to Libya, witnessed the event from a nearby secured house.
For several months a joint Libyan-US team has been working to track down SAMs in Libya.
Gaddafi had about 20 000 MANPADS, many of which were looted during the conflict that ended his rule, prompting concern that they could end up in the hands of al Qaeda’s north African branch. The weapons are favoured by militant groups because they are light and portable, relatively simple to use and can in theory bring down a civilian airliner, Reuters reports.
Last month Derrin Smith, an adviser to the US government’s inter-agency task force on MANPADS, said predictions that large numbers of the weapons would be taken out of Libya to al Qaeda’s desert strongholds have not been realised.
“It appears at this point that most of the Libyan MANPAD stocks continue to be in the hands of Libyan personnel. So we’ll work with the government to recover those into centralised government inventory control,” Smith told a news conference in the Algerian capital.
“The bad news is that no one is certain what the exact number is that is outside government control and it will take some months of effort to come up with a reasonable number.”
In the chaotic fighting to end Gaddafi’s rule, local militias trying to overthrow him raided arms depots and took the weapons for themselves.
The militias are largely loyal to the Western-backed government now in power, but there are questions over how securely they are storing the weapons.
Security experts have said that MANPADS could be acquired by militants or smugglers and taken across Libya’s porous southern borders into neighbouring Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
Al Qaeda’s north African branch, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is active in the Sahara desert, which straddles those countries. An AQIM commander has said his group exploited the Libya conflict to obtain weapons.
Smith said that U.S. weapons specialists, working with the new Libyan government, had already catalogued some stocks of shoulder-fired missiles inside the country.
“The bulk of the inventory are SA-7 older Soviet models of surface-to-air missiles,” said Smith. “Some of the missiles they have recovered were corroded and non-functional. Many of the others were still in their steel shipping containers and were fully functioning missiles.”
“We are working side by side with the NTC to reduce the threat of these loose weapons,” Shapiro said after talks in Tripoli with officials from the ruling National Transitional Council, the interior and defence ministries.
Shapiro said the US has already spent US$6 million in its efforts to secure the SAMs. It intends to spend up to US$40 million to end the threat of these “loose weapons,” he added.