TRIPOLI, Libya — 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.
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.
NATO, which this week wrapped up the 7-month air and naval campaign in Libya that was instrumental in toppling Gadhafi, has struck an upbeat tone. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that while individual NATO members might be willing to help, he was confident Libyans could handle border controls and other security issues.
“The arms embargo ... is still in place, so it’s the responsibility of all members of the U.N. to enforce the arms embargo,” Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday at a news conference in Brussels.
“It is possible for individual nations, including NATO allies, to assist the new authorities in Libya,” he said. “It follows from international law that the legitimate government of a country can ask other countries to help enforce an arms embargo or arms control.”
Paul Rogers, a professor of peace studies at England’s Bradford University, called Rasmussen’s optimism about Libya’s ability to control its borders alone “hugely premature.”
“NATO is frankly very reluctant to be involved as an organization. Any further substantive involvement could be problematic because of potential security problems and instability,” he said.
Boaz Ganor, an Israeli counter-terrorism expert, said it’s impossible to estimate how many anti-aircraft missiles have disappeared in Libya. “It’s enough that (just) dozens would fall into the hands of terror organizations, and we find ourselves in a new era of terror against aircraft,” he said.
But other security experts noted that shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles, like all munitions, decay over time and that Libya is not the only black market source of such weapons.
“There is no shortage of this stuff (worldwide),” said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, a U.S.-based think tank.
For Libyans, disarming rebel fighters seems to be the most pressing problem, following a rash of personal score-settling by armed men from rival groups.
In one of the most serious incidents yet, fighters battled each other at Tripoli’s central hospital over two days this week. At one point, a gunman trying to finish off a wounded rival sneaked into an operating theater and managed to fire one shot before being disarmed, the hospital security chief said. The feud left one dead and five wounded.
Despite repeated announcements, the government has not begun to collect weapons. In Tripoli, pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weapons mounted in the back are a common sight. Three young fighters used their vehicle recently to pick up pizza from a fast-food restaurant.
Rival military commanders jockeying for positions seem reluctant to be the first to disarm. Mukhtar al-Akhdar, a commander who captured Tripoli’s airport during the war and now controls it, said it’s not yet time to hand over weapons because the city remains insecure. Al-Akhdar, who commands several hundred fighters from the mountain town of Zintan, is one of several military chiefs who have carved out areas of control in the capital.
Pike said disarming Libyans will take time. “In times of insecurity, who would want to be the first person to hand over their weapons?” he said.