Raids on Libyan regime's weapons depots concern for West

Missing hardware 'enough to make all North Africa no-fly zone'

The long metal crates strewn on the grounds of the warehouse were empty. Hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, craved by terrorist groups and "rogue states", had disappeared in the past few days, looted from one of Libya's overflowing arms dumps.

Among the missiles taken away were Russian-built SA-24s, designed for use against modern warplanes, which the United States had been trying to block from falling into Iranian hands, and the older SA-7s and 9s, capable of bringing down commercial airliners, which al-Qaeda has been striving to obtain.

As Libya's bloody civil war reaches its conclusion, myriad bunkers and barracks containing the regime's weaponry, from Kalashnikovs to missiles, armoured cars and tanks, have been left unguarded, many to be stripped bare by militia fighters and the public, by families arriving with their children.

The numbers involved are far larger than the caches that armed the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And in Libya there is even less security to guard these. Unlike those two fronts of the "war on terror", there are no foreign troops present in Libya, and the opposition forming the new government have their resources tied up trying to subdue the remaining loyalist strongholds and repairing infrastructure to safeguard the arsenals.

The ransacking of the depots containing missiles have set alarms ringing among security agencies in the United States and Europe.

Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, charting the arms depots, said: "The problem is pretty huge, there are around 20,000 surface-to-air missiles in Libya and a hell of a lot of them are missing. The Western agencies are obviously pretty concerned, this lot can turn the whole of North Africa into a no-fly zone."

Nato air strikes destroyed an estimated 600 missiles, radar systems and storage facilities in the course of the campaign. In response, regime forces moved some of the weaponry away from military into civilian areas, where they could be accessed once the rebels gained control of the areas.

The missiles found to be missing yesterday had been taken from the Tripoli headquarters of the 32nd Brigade, under the command of Gaddafi's son Khamis al-Gaddafi, to a commercial storage area. Although the missiles had gone, there were still dozens of cases of mortar rounds, artillery shells, rocket-propelled grenades and rifle ammunition left in the vast room.

Across the road in an open field lay piled-up boxes of anti-personnel mines, a weapon which has already caused a series of deaths, many among children, in districts where hostilities have ended. Ian Martin, the UN's special adviser on Libya, acknowledged: "Proliferation of weapons is a major concern, we are taking this extremely seriously."

UNMAS (United Nations Mine Action Service) is supposed to be taking the lead on this matter but, because of security concerns, it has only one staff member in Tripoli.

There is increasing evidence of arms from Libya slipping into other countries. Abdelkader Messahel, an Algerian Foreign Minister, claimed al-Qaeda fighters are "reinforcing themselves with arms coming from Libya".

The Chad Government has reported that SAM-7s have arrived there from Libya, while the authorities in Niger are trying to track down consignments of Semtex, the plastic explosive once favoured by the IRA, heading for dissident Tuareg tribes.

At Tarhouna, near Bani Walid, more than 100 Russian-made tanks and armoured personnel carriers are parked in hangars. A group of armed local men had come to see if they could make use of the armour.

"These have been here for a long time, so no one would miss them," said Mahmood Ishmail Zubeidi. "We thought maybe our villages can have our own tanks to protect the revolution. But all the fuel has been drained.

"So we are going to Tripoli and get some other things like AKs (AK-47 assault rifles). Maybe we'll get some machine-guns as well."

- Independent

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