Egyptian security forces have seized several shipments of weapons, believed to be from Libya, bound for the Gaza Strip. Looted Libyan weapons remain a big concern in North Africa, turning up from Algeria to Mali.
Yesterday Egyptian police confiscated a truck carrying heavy weapons in the city of Suez. The truck was on its way to the peninsula to deliver Grad missiles and other weapons, according to a police commander.
Three suspects were detained and the weapons seized, reports the Ma’an News Agency. Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram said that the shipment was smuggled via the Egypt-Libya border and contained 185 crates of bullets, anti-tank and anti-aircraft rounds, rockets, RPG launchers, land mines and explosives worth around 20 million Egyptian pounds ($3.3 million).
Last week Egyptian security forces seized a large arms shipment that had been smuggled into the seaport of Marsa Matruh, according to Egyptian daily Al-Masry al-Youm. The shipment included 108 Grad rockets and 19 646 rounds of ammunition. Three suspects fled into the desert after being ambushed by security forces.
The weapons are thought to have come from Libya, whose vast stocks of weapons were looted during the civil war there that led to the deposition of Muammar Gaddafi. Egyptian security forces suspect the consignment was on its way to Gaza or Sinai at the hands of a narcotics and weaponry smuggling syndicate.
Since 2006 Hamas has been firing 122 mm Grad rockets into Israel, using portable single-tube launchers. Rocket attacks by militants in Gaza and Sinai caused Israel to launch Operation Pillar of Defence earlier this month. However, Israel did not managed to completely disrupt weapons supply lines into Gaza during the operation.
Arms, including surface-to-air missiles, rockets and anti-aircraft guns, are smuggled into Gaza through a vast network of tunnels. Apart from those coming from Libya, weapons are also smuggled into Gaza and Sinai from Sudan and Lebanon – in the latter case via Iran’s proxy Hezbollah.
Allegedly, a communications network connects Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Syrian army, Hamas and Hezbollah together.
A ceasefire agreement last week ended eight days of fighting in the Gaza Strip between Israeli forces and Hamas. However, on Saturday senior Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar said that Islamists would go on smuggling in weapons “by all possible means”, including via Israel’s arch-foe Iran.
The Egyptian-brokered truce deal agreed on Wednesday calls on Israel to ease curbs on coastal Gaza, which it has largely blockaded since Hamas, which rejects the Jewish state’s right to exist, took power there in 2007.
Zahar said Hamas would continue to arm itself, though the truce signed in Cairo calls for a cessation of rocket fire at Israel, which Israel gave as its reason for launching its attacks in mid-November.
“We have no choice but to continue to bring in weapons by all possible means,” Zahar said, adding that he expected Tehran would “increase its military and financial support to Hamas”.
“We have a right to take money and weapons from Iran. They (Iran) give to us for the sake of God, no conditions attached, and I am a witness to that,” Zahar told reporters.
Zahar said that after Hamas’s rain of rocket fire that reached as far as Tel Aviv and paralyzed swathes of southern Israel, “the Jews will think twice before” attacking Iran, as Israel has earlier hinted it might do to stop a nuclear program the West fears is destined to produce atomic weapons.
Some analysts say otherwise, however, pointing at how the Israeli military inflicted serious blows to Hamas’s weapons arsenal, showing the world it has cutting-edge technology, particularly when it comes to missile defence, particularly its Iron Dome artillery defence system.
Governments in North Africa have warned that instability in Libya after the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule is allowing weapons taken from Gaddafi’s arsenal to fall into the hands of al Qaeda’s north African branch and other insurgent groups across the Sahara desert.
Western security experts tracking arms which have disappeared from Gaddafi’s looted arms depots say shoulder-fired missiles are one of their biggest concerns because they could be used with relative ease by insurgent groups.
Gaddafi’s forces had about 20,000 of the missiles, according to a U.S. government task force. The task force says most of the missiles are still inside Libya, in the hands of militias loosely allied to the interim leadership that took over after Gaddafi’s rule was overthrown last year.
Security officials in North Africa say the worst-case scenario is that al Qaeda’s north African wing, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), could use one of the missiles to bring down a commercial airliner coming in to land or taking off at an airport somewhere in North Africa.
Earlier this year the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism said that Somali pirates have been some of the beneficiaries of Libyan weapons, acquiring mines and shoulder-held missile launchers, and are likely to use them in bolder attacks on shipping.
Libyan weapons have found their way to Mali, and helped Tuareg militias rebel against the government earlier this year.