Libya struggles to secure loose weapons

TRIPOLI — More than two months after the fall of Tripoli, Libya’s new leaders are still struggling to secure massive weapons depots, stop the smuggling of munitions out of the country and disarm thousands of fighters who brought down Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.

The international community has offered to help, but also expects Libyans to step up. However, the interim leadership — in limbo until the formation of a new government mid-month — may not be up to the task. Libya’s temporary leader, responding to increasingly urgent international appeals, said he can’t do much because he lacks the funds.

As recently as last month, Human Rights Watch researchers found an unguarded weapons site with thousands of crates of rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft rounds in the Libyan desert.

Libyan authorities also discovered two military compounds housing chemical weapons that an official said were ready to be assembled and used, as well as another site containing 7,000 drums of raw uranium. The officials would not give further details. Chemical weapons inspectors arrived in Libya this week to start securing the sites, a U.N. official said.

Failure to secure weapons has fueled fears that the material could fall into the wrong hands, including shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles that could pose a threat to civil aviation.

**FILE** Rebel fighters fire weapons in Benghazi, Libya, during the funeral of Abdul-Gader Al-Faitori, a rebel fighter who died after being injured a month earlier during combat with pro-Gadhafi forces. (Associated Press)

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**FILE** Rebel fighters fire weapons in Benghazi, Libya, during the funeral of ... more >

Compounding the problem, the myriad brigades of revolutionary fighters so far have refused to disarm, and there has been a rash of personal score-settling by armed men from rival groups, including a shootout at a Tripoli hospital this week. Libyan leaders used to play down the danger of the massive weapons presence, but are now increasingly worried.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon visited Libya on Wednesday to personally deliver his concern about the unsecured weapons.

Earlier this week, the U.N. Security Council urged Libyan authorities to take quick action, saying it fears the weapons, especially shoulder-held missiles, could fall into the hands of armed groups and terrorists. The United States has previously sent weapons experts to Libya and has contributed about $40 million toward destroying surface-to-air missiles, which can be used to shoot down planes.

Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, Libya’s interim leader, asked the international community Wednesday to release more of the Gadhafi regime’s billions of dollars in frozen assets to use in programs to disarm fighters and control weapons.

In the vacuum, the weapons chaos persists.

Weapons smuggling across the border into neighboring Egypt “happens all day and night,” controlled by powerful clans in the area, said Adel al-Motirdi, commander of the patrol units on the two countries’ border.

“We can do nothing to stop it,” he said. Among the contraband was were machine guns and rocket launchers.

Israeli officials have said some of those weapons have reached the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which shares a border with Egypt.

A Bedouin tribesman in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which abuts Gaza, said smuggling has become more prevalent, both because of security lapses in Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in February and because the Libyan-Egypt border has become more porous.

Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga, a member of Libya’s National Transitional Council, said Libya is seeking help from friendly countries, including Qatar, one of the earliest supporters of the anti-Gadhafi uprising, to secure the borders. “But there will not be (foreign) troops on the ground because this would go against our national sovereignty,” he said. He did not explain why type of help Libya is seeking.

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