- Associated Press - Saturday, March 22, 2014

TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) - At the heart of the Libyan capital, the open-air Fish Market was once a place where residents went to buy everything from meat and seafood to clothes and pets. Now it’s Tripoli’s biggest arms market, with tables displaying pistols and assault rifles. Ask a vendor, and he can pull out bigger machine guns to sell for thousands of dollars.

Libya, where hundreds of militias hold sway and the central government is virtually powerless, is awash in millions of weapons with no control over their trafficking. The arms free-for-all fuels not only Libya’s instability but also stokes conflicts around the region as guns are smuggled through the country’s wide-open borders to militants fighting in insurgencies and wars stretching from Syria to West Africa.

The lack of control is at times stunning. Last month, militia fighters stole a planeload of weapons sent by Russia for Libya’s military when it stopped to refuel at Tripoli International Airport on route to a base in the south. The fighters surrounded the plane on the tarmac and looted the shipment of automatic weapons and ammunition, Hashim Bishr, an official with a Tripoli security body under the Interior Ministry, told The Associated Press.

In a further indignity, the fighters belonged to a militia officially assigned by the government to protect the airport, since regular forces are too weak to do it.

Only a few weeks earlier, another militia seized a weapons’ shipment that landed at Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport meant for the military’s 1st Battalion, Bishr said. Among the weapons were heavy anti-aircraft guns, which are a pervasive weapon among the militias and are usually mounted on the back of pickup trucks.

FILE - In this Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012 file photo, Libyan militias ... more >

The weapons chaos has alarmed Europe - just a short distance across the Mediterranean - and the United States. At a conference in Rome this month, Western and Arab diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, pressed Libyan officials to reach some political consensus so the international community can help the government collect weapons and rebuild the military and police.

The problem is that Europe and the U.S. simply don’t know who to talk to in Libya, a Western diplomat in Tripoli told the AP.

“It’s about whether they are capable of receiving the help,” he said, speaking on spoke on condition of anonymity to talk about the discussions at the conference. He pointed to an international effort to build storage houses in which to collect weapons in the western Libyan town of Gharyan. That project has stumbled, he said, because of the problem of determining “who is in charge and whom we work with.”

The 42-year rule of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi left the country without solid political institutions. Since his fall and death in the 2011 civil war, the instability has only spiraled. The rebel brigades that formed to fight him have turned into powerful militias, many based on tribe, region, city or even neighborhood, that often battle each other as they carve out zones of control. Some have hard-line Islamist or even al-Qaida-inspired ideologies.

The militias outgun the military and police, which were shattered in the civil war. The government has to hire militias to take up security duties at airports, seaports, hospitals and government buildings. A militia assigned to protect oil facilities in the east turned around and took over the facilities last year, demanding greater autonomy for the country’s eastern region, and the vital oil industry has been virtually shut down since.

Libya’s politicians are themselves deeply divided, broadly into an Islamist-led and a rival bloc, each backed by allied militias, turning politics into an armed conflict. Militias, for example, have besieged parliament to force passage of particular laws and once briefly kidnapped the former prime minister.

Highlighting the divisions, Libya sent two separate delegations to the Rome Conference, one headed by then-Prime Minister Ali Zidan, the other by his rival, Islamist parliament chief Nouri Abu-Sahmain. Soon after the conference, lawmakers led by Islamists succeeded in removing Zidan in a no-confidence vote.

Several officials told the AP that the government does not know how many weapons there are in Libya, a country of 6 million people.

Saleh Jaweida, a lawmaker on parliament’s National Security Committee, said that all figures are speculation but that a plausible estimate is between 10 million to 15 million light weapons - up to an assault rifle - and not counting heavier caliber weapons or armor.

Many of the arms came from the arsenals of the Gadhafi-era military and police, which were looted during the civil war and after the collapse of his rule. Another source is the large amount of weapons shipped to the rebels during the eight-month uprising, largely from Gulf Arab nations.

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