Free for all: Up to 20,000 anti-aircraft missiles stolen in Libya

A survey of weapon depots in Libya shows that up to 20,000 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are now missing, partly because President Barack Obama has refused to send troops to guard the weapons depots, according to a left-of-center advocate.

“We were quite disappointed after talking to administration officials … that nothing more was done, even about the [storage] facilities in Tripoli, which are unsecured now,” said Peter Bouckaert, director of emergencies at left-of-centre group Human Rights Watch.

‘“The major impediment [to action] is that the administration doesn’t want ‘boots on the ground,’” he said.

“If these weapons get into the wrong hands, any civilian aircraft operating in the region will be threatened,” said Bouckaert, who has just returned from a visit to Libya.

White House spokesman Jay Carney today downplayed concerns about the missing missiles. “We have … worked closely with the [Libyan rebel leaders] as well as NATO in investigating and dealing with the issue of conventional weapons in Libya … [and] we are exploring every option to expand our support.”

So far, said Carney, an official from the State Department has been posted to Libya. He is being aided by five contractors, Carney said.

The missing missiles are Russian-made SA-7s and SA-16s: Shoulder-launched missiles that can home into the hot exhaust trails from civilian and military jets. The SA-16 is only five feet long and weighs just 24 pounds.

A few of those types of missiles were used by al-Qaida’s allies in Iraq. Al-Qaida’s allies in Yemen have also showcased their possession of a number of the missiles.

In the last few weeks, Bouckaert said, administration officials have met to discuss the threat. “This has moved sharply up on Obama’s agenda,” partly because the administration-backed National Transitional Council can’t guard the weapons depots, he said.

“European intelligence agencies are also very concerned about these missiles, and they’ve been in contact with me,” he added. The European intelligence agencies “have a larger capacity on the ground [in Libya] because they’re not operating under the same restrictions that President Obama has placed himself in,” Bouckaert explained.

Obama sent missile-armed aircraft to help the rebel tribes push back the heavily-armed Libyan army, but has consistently refused to send U.S ground troops to win land battles or to protect the fledgling democratic government once dictator Muammar Gaddafi fled the Libyan capital of Tripoli in August. When Obama announced the U.S. intervention on March 18, he was explicit: “The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya.”

“The problem is that the missiles are already out of the storage facilities and in the hand of unknown people,” Bouckaert said. “Libya has thousands of miles of unsecured desert borders to Chad, Mali and Algeria,” where an al-Qaida subgroup now operates, he said.

The al-Qaida subgroup is called al-Qaida in the Maghreb.

The missing missiles and other weaponry has gotten relatively little publicity, despite the danger posed to the U.S. and European and African countries. In October 2004, in contrast, the New York Times ignited a political scandal just days before the 2004 presidential election by publishing a front-page report claiming that a few hundred tons of explosives had been stolen by gunmen from the Iraq’s al Qa’qaa storage facility.

“I was in Iraq in 2003 and the amount of weaponry floating around in Libya is much greater than the anything we saw in Iraq,“ said Bouckaert.

Islamists have used surface-to-air missiles against aircraft in Iraq, and tried in 2002 to shoot down an Israeli civilian airliner in Kenya. The Israeli aircraft survived, likely because it “had some form of defense systems against the missiles, which U.S. airplanes don’t,” Bouckaert said.

Despite the growing concern among officials in the U.S and Europe, he said, “you can still walk into any facility without anyone stopping you.”

The U.S. supplied heat-seeking Stinger missiles to Afghan insurgents during the war against the Soviet military in Afghanistan. The missiles proved very effective, and after the Soviets left in 1989 the CIA launched a major effort to buy back unused missiles.

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