x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Defuse arms threat in an unstable Libya

Libya is full of poorly-guarded small arms and explosives, and they are vanishing rapidly into the wrong hands.

Somewhere amid the detritus of Col Muammar Qaddafi's unlamented regime, US officials say, are as many as 20,000 shoulder-launched rockets, each capable of shooting down an airliner or helicopter. The notion of such weapons in the hands of Al Qaeda or its allies is a nightmare for everyone.

For the people of Libya, however, those rockets are just part of a much wider problem: as the civil war winds down, after the collapse of Qaddafi's regime, the country is awash in small arms.

On Friday, Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC) asked the US for help in securing the old regime's weaponry. Qaddafi forswore chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in 2004, but stocks of material for such weaponry, though not in usable form, are believed to remain.

Conventional arms are another story. The NTC has been slow to secure arms caches, so slow that the Associated Press reports that depots full of rifles, ammunition, landmines, explosives and the like have been cleaned out by militia groups and, indeed, anyone with a lorry.

Explosions at a cache in Tripoli on Saturday were probably not part of government efforts to limit the spread of munitions, but they do offer an omen of the violence that could be in store for Libya.

Beyond the danger of arms flowing to militants, Libya will also have to cope with the ubiquity of weapons in the hands of suspicious tribes, truculent militias, various factions, criminal gangs and individuals seeking protection. It may be too late to prevent that, but there is time to make sure that few Libyans are eager to use their new arms.

Among this government's many priorities must be weapons buy-back programmes and better policing of unguarded arms depots. But the real key here is the new government. A cabinet and administration seen to be composed of leaders from different tribes, blocs, regions and viewpoints, demonstrating a willingness to compromise and get things done, could greatly lower the political temperature.

In the broad sense, the cabinet to be announced within a week, followed by negotiations, will tell the story. Its make-up will itself be the first test of the government's ability to compromise, and will signal to Libyans - and the world - whether the sound of gunfire and explosions will be a rarity or routine in a new Libya created at so high a price.