Libya’s missiles, chemicals worry U.S.

Agencies looking to secure arsenal

A Libyan rebel gestures in Abu Salim district in Tripoli, Libya, on Aug. 25, 2011. (Associated Press)A Libyan rebel gestures in Abu Salim district in Tripoli, Libya, on Aug. 25, 2011. (Associated Press)

U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic agencies are quietly making plans to secure elements of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s expansive arsenal of weapons as his regime nears collapse and is under fire from rebels seeking to expand control over the Libyan capital.

The government is concerned that conventional weapons, such as SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles, which can be used to shoot down aircraft, could get in the wrong hands.

The government also is monitoring Col. Gadhafi’s stocks of chemical weapons, estimated to include between 10 tons and 14 tons of mustard gas and also uranium ore, U.S. government spokesmen said Wednesday.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan told Agence France-Presse on Wednesday that the Soviet-made 1970s-era surface-to-air missile launcher known as the SA-7 would “remain a concern because of [its] portability.”

News reports Wednesday from Libya said the rebel coalition had placed a price on the head of Col. Gadhafi. The Libyan opposition confederation, known as the Transitional National Council, also urged the international community to release Libya’s frozen assets held by foreign banks.

In this image made from television, rebel fighter stands on the back of a truck with an rocket launcher in Moammar Gadhafi's Bab al-Aziziya fortress-like compound in Tripoli, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/APTN)

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In this image made from television, rebel fighter stands on the back ... more >

The State Department this year hired the MAGAmerica, or the Mines Advisory Group, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that specializes in the disposal of ordnance, to monitor and dispose of some conventional arms stockpiles in Libya. A team from the group arrived in the country in April and began training fighters provided by rebel groups for on-the-ground assessments.

Jennifer Lachman, executive director of MAGAmerica, said her organization had seven non-Libyan specialists on the ground in the country.

She said her group disposed mainly of airdropped bombs that had not exploded. When the inspection teams came upon abandoned ammunition points, however, the teams had to negotiate with the Transitional National Council over what weapons would be destroyed, Ms. Lachman said.

“We have teams of technical experts, international experts who deployed and trained local members of the TNC to work with us,” she said. “We always work with the ultimate or primary priority being the security of our staff. It’s a negotiation or a joint process that determines what items are destroyed.”

The U.S. government estimates that Col. Gadhafi imported 20,000 shoulder-fired SA-7 rockets during his reign. The weapon is especially attractive to terrorists seeking a projectile capable of downing an airplane.

Ms. Lachman said her teams have not found many SA-7 rockets. “It’s a security concern, given the threat,” she said. “We haven’t seen close to 20,000 of them on the ground.”

“We’ve seen since February the looting of arms depots and specifically those missiles,” said Matthew Schroeder, director of the arms-sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists. “Missiles similar to these have been used in the past to shoot down civilian aircraft.”

Mr. Schroeder added that the rebels have acquired the SA-7b missiles. “We know the rebels have had a hard time controlling them at the depots,” he said.

Libya’s chemical weapons also have been a worry for the U.S. government.

Jamie F. Mannina, a spokesman for the State Department’s arms-control division, said Libya’s known chemical-weapons storage facilities have been monitored since the start of the rebellion in March.

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