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The deadly dilemma of Libya's missing weapons

Human Rights Watch discovered several weapons-storage sites in Libya where surface-to-air missiles are missing, raising concerns that the weapons could arm an Iraq-style insurgency.

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The sophistication and vast size of Libya’s military hardware – and the fact that it was widely dispersed during the NATO airstrikes – complicates the effort to control it, as the Tripoli Military Council, which is tasked with handling security in the capital, consolidates its grip just 2-1/2 weeks after the fall of Colonel Qaddafi.

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“So Western intelligence agencies have been calling us for information about the SAMs; [but] they’re not too interested in the stuff that’s going to hurt the Libyans, which is what’s still here to loot,” said Bouckaert.

“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,” he adds. US reporting from that 2009 sale – including WikiLeaks cables – also emphasized the dangers of the SA-24 being passed on by the anti-American Mr. Chavez, to boost FARC rebels in Colombia or drug lords in Mexico.

Empty cases

At an education ministry book-storage and printing facility in southern Tripoli that was turned into a makeshift weapons depot, the long green shipping crates for the shoulder-fired SA-24 – along with crates that once contained older versions, the SA-7 and SA-14 – were found empty. It is adjacent to a Khamis Brigade base commanded by and named after one of Qaddafi's sons.

The SA-24s shipped to Libya apparently can’t be shoulder-fired without a different trigger, and must be mounted on a truck, an unnamed senior official of the Russian KBM Machine-building design bureau told Aviation Week last March.

Still, NATO aircraft often flew sorties higher than 20,000 feet in altitude, well beyond range of the SA-24.

Details of different shipments of SAMs showed that thousands of such missiles remain unaccounted for. The boxes were mixed with stack after stack of heavy ordnance – 120mm mortar shells, 125mm projectiles, and wire-guided anti-tank rounds among them.

Anti-Qaddafi forces had already taken portions of this stockpile for their own use, shortly after Tripoli fell to rebels, according to a young man who lives nearby. Last week, 10 of the SA-7s were seen on an anti-Qaddafi vehicle – the clue that led HRW to this site.

Across the street on the edge of a sandy field, loyalist forces had also tucked away some 12,000 mines – many of them stacked in crates along the wall and concealed with camouflage netting. On Wednesday, a day after being alerted by HRW, men working for the NTC lifted crates into two large trucks for removal.

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